With the major winds and rains of Hurricane Florence beginning their assault on the US east coast, residents in some of the most vulnerable areas along the coasts of the Carolinas are ignoring evacuation orders even as officials warn “this is a powerful storm that can kill”.
“I could be wrong. If I am, I hope God protects us. I hope he protects us either way,” Dennis Parnell, of Hampstead, North Carolina, said.
Mr Parnell, who plans on riding out the storm with his wife Cheri, is a safety consultant and said he recognises the irony of him ignoring evacuation orders. But, he said his faith gives him strength to stay and accept whatever comes from that decision.
“If I’m wrong, I’ll see them on the other side,” he added.
As many as 1.7 million people have been told to evacuate from coastal areas in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia, with local power authorities predicting that millions could find themselves without power once Florence makes landfall in the US. Speaking on Thursday, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper warned that Florence still poses a grave risk for the state, even though the storm has been downgraded to a less-powerful Category 2 storm and is predicted to curl into South Carolina after initial landfall.
“My message today: Don’t relax, don’t get complacent, this is a powerful storm that can kill,” Mr Cooper said.
Mr Cooper’s North Carolina is one of five states – from Georgia and north to Maryland – where an emergency have been declared. It is designation that frees up funding for more nimble responses. President Donald Trump has declared states of emergency in both Carolinas, as well as in Virginia.
“It’s going to be a lot. Even if it tracks south, we’re on the bad side of the storm,” Mr Cooper said.
Florence – which was roughly 100 miles from the coast on Thursday afternoon – is predicted to make landfall in the US with wind speeds of up to 110 mph, with hurricane force winds extending 85 miles from the centre of the storm and tropical storm force winds reaching out as far as 195 miles.
But, in spite of warnings from the National Hurricane Centre (NHS) of “catastrophic flash flooding” from rains as high as 40 inches in some areas – conditions fuelled, in part, by the storm system stalling once it hits the US – some residents are boarding up their windows and staying put, citing protecting their property and their faith in God as reason to do so.
Robert Coleman, a retired truck driver who lives just inland from the barrier island town Surf City, said he is staying put to guard his things and to keep dogs safe.
“I have six dogs and a lot of places don’t accept animals,” Mr Coleman said when asked why he did not plan on evacuating. “Everything I’ve worked for is here. If I leave, I may not be able to get back to it”.
Florence has attracted a massive response from first responders who have travelled to the area from all over the country in order to help. That includes the deployment of thousands of National Guard troops with helicopters and rescue boats to be used to help stranded people in floodwaters and elsewhere. Other first responders are travelling the area to help with those efforts from other states, and to help state medical operations to help the sick and vulnerable in hospitals and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, shelters have popped up to house thousands of people evacuating from the barrier islands and low-lying areas where evacuation orders have been handed down.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) has sent officials to be embedded with local officials along the eastern coast to monitor the situation, and federal officials have repeatedly told governors that federal funding will be made available for recovery efforts after Florence moves north and dies out.
Fema administrator Brock Long, speaking during a news conference, urged residents to leave before it is too late to do so. “Your time is running out”, Mr Long said.
As grey clouds approached from the east and winds began to pick up, Jessie Cox took a glance out towards the sea. Mr Cox of Holly Ridge, North Carolina, said that he and his family have learned from experience that staying at home in an evacuation zone is about as smart of a move as they can make. They have boats he said, and plenty of supplies.
Plus, he noted that things are not necessarily going to be that much better further inland where Hurricane Matthew in 2016 showed that major flooding can pose grave risks. Mr Cox said that his mother once evacuated inland during a major storm, only to be water rescued when her car was stranded on I-95.
For Mr Cox – who works for a cooling and heating company and will eventually be tasked with assessing damage from the storm – flooding on the coast would simply make it too hard to get back home after Florence passes. There is just no ideal place to flee to when a major storm hits where you live, and brings massive storm surges.
“The storm is going to be on top of Hardee’s,” he said, referring to storm predictions he saw that predicted waves that would reach over a local restaurant – a signal that the storm would have a large impact on much of the state, not just the coast. “Inland gets it real bad”.
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