People flee coast as Florence nears Carolinas

HOLDEN BEACH, N.C. (Reuters) - More than 1.5 million people were ordered to evacuate their homes along the U.S. southeast coast as Hurricane Florence, the most powerful to menace the Carolinas in nearly three decades, barreled closer on Tuesday.

Florence, a Category 4 storm packing winds of 130 miles per hour (210 kph), was expected to make landfall on Friday, most likely in southeastern North Carolina near the South Carolina border, the National Hurricane Center in Miami said.

U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday signed declarations of emergency for both North Carolina and South Carolina, a step that frees up federal money and resources for storm response.

Residents boarded up their homes and stripped grocery stores bare of food, water and supplies. The South Carolina Highway Patrol sent “flush cars” eastbound on major highways to clear traffic, before reversing lanes on major roadways to speed the evacuation of the coast, state officials said on Twitter.

South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster ordered about 1 million residents along his state’s coastline to leave starting at noon on Tuesday, when the highways will become westbound only. He evoked the memory of 1989’s Hurricane Hugo, which killed 27 people in the state, in urging people to comply.

“I’d rather be safe than sorry,” McMaster told ABC’s “Good Morning America” TV show on Tuesday. “We want people to get out and get safe.”

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam issued an evacuation order for about 245,000 residents in flood-prone coastal areas beginning at 8 a.m. local time.

GRAPHIC: Hurricane Florence heads toward Carolinas - tmsnrt.rs/2oZ5m1v

GENERATOR, HOME REPAIR STOCKS UP

The storm was located about 950 miles (1,530 km) east-southeast of Cape Fear, North Carolina, at 8 a.m. ET, according to the NHC, which warned it would be “an extremely dangerous major hurricane” through Thursday night.

In addition to flooding the coast with wind-driven storm surges of seawater as high as 12 feet (3.7 m), Florence could drop 20 inches to as much as 30 inches (51 cm to 76 cm) of rain in places, posing the risk of deadly flooding miles inland, forecasters said. They warned the storm could linger for days after making landfall, drenching an already saturated landscape.

Shares of generator maker Generac Holdings Inc rose 3 percent, adding to Monday’s more than 5-percent gain, in expectation that the company will benefit from increased demand as the storm knocks out power for residents in the storm’s path.

Anticipating a rush for home protection and repair materials, investors also pushed up the shares of Home Depot Inc and Lowe’s Cos Inc for the second day.

STAY OR FLEE?

At least 250,000 more people were due to be evacuated from the northern Outer Banks in North Carolina on Tuesday after more than 50,000 people were ordered on Monday to leave Hatteras and Ocracoke, the southernmost of the state’s barrier islands.

“We haven’t plywooded our house for several years but I am for this one,” said Tom Pahl, 66, by phone from Ocracoke Island. Pahl, who serves as a Hyde County commissioner, said he had not yet made up his mind about leaving the island, which is reachable only by ferry and plane.

Retired Maryland State Police pilot Paul Jones and his wife hit the road early on Tuesday to avoid traffic from Hatteras Island to their Maryland residence.

“I will not stay for a hurricane,” Jones, 68, said. “I have had enough excitement in my life.”

Classified as a Category 4 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane strength, Florence is the most severe storm to threaten the U.S. mainland this year.

The United States was hit with a series of high-powered hurricanes last year, including Hurricane Maria, which killed some 3,000 people in Puerto Rico, and Hurricane Harvey, which killed about 68 people and caused an estimated $1.25 billion in damage with catastrophic flooding in Houston.

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