Storm Rider 6 in Outer Banks ahead of Hurricane Florence

KILL DEVIL HILLS, N.C. -- Hurricane Florence's wrath begins today.

The Carolina coasts can expect winds topping 80 mph late Thursday afternoon. And that's just the prelude to untold days of misery.

Don't be fooled by the fact that Florence has weakened slightly to a Category 2 hurricane; categories only denote the speed of sustained winds. What makes this hurricane extremely dangerous are the deadly storm surges, mammoth coastal flooding and historic rainfall expected far inland.

Even worse: Florence is expected to hover over the Carolinas, whipping hurricane-force winds and dumping relentless rain at least through Saturday.

By the time it leaves, it's expected to have unloaded 10 trillion gallons of rainfall in North Carolina, weather.us meteorologist Ryan Maue said. That's enough to fill more than 15 million Olympic-size swimming pools.

Latest developments

• Storm has weakened: Florence is now a Category 2 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 110 mph.

• Where is Florence? The storm was about 235 miles east-southeast of Wilmington, North Carolina and was moving at about 17 mph on Thursday morning.

• The path of the storm: Florence's center will approach the North and South Carolina coast late Thursday and Friday, but it's unclear where and precisely when it will make landfall. As the storm moves inland, Georgia, Virginia and Maryland will also be in peril.

• Storm surge still a big threat: Strong winds will send rising water inland from the coastline of the Carolinas. The National Hurricane Center says the storm surge could rise up to 13 feet -- that's water inundating homes up to the first floor ceiling.

• Flight cancellations: At least 800 flights along the US East Coast have been canceled Thursday through Saturday ahead of the storm.

Millions flee or prep for chaos

Officials in the potential path of Florence urged people to evacuate their coastal homes and directed drivers away from the coast.

"You put your life at risk by staying," North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said. "Don't plan to leave once the winds and rains start."

Cooper and his South Carolina counterpart, Henry McMaster, told the more than 1 million people who have been directed to leave that if they don't do so, they are on their own.

About 300,000 people have been evacuated from South Carolina, McMaster said. The governor added that a million or more people could be evacuated before the storm makes landfall.

"Even the rescuers cannot stay there," he said.

In Carolina Beach, authorities have stopped allowing traffic to the island via the only bridge between the island and the mainland. They also instituted a 24-hour curfew. The town is less than 5 feet above sea level and officials worry that as many as 1,000 of the town's 6,300 residents are planning to stay.

Mayor Joe Benson said the storm will batter the oceanside town through two high tide periods. Storm surge of 13 feet on top of a high tide at 7 feet could overwhelm Carolina Beach.

"Our sand dunes are healthy but they're not going to be able to keep back a wall of water like that," he said. "Flooding is almost guaranteed."

Susan Faulkenberry Panousis has stayed in her Bald Head Island, North Carolina home during prior hurricanes, but not this time. She packed up what she could and took a ferry.

"When that last ferry pulls out ... it's unnerving to see it pull away and know, 'That's the last chance I have of getting off this island,'" she said Wednesday.

More than 10 million people are under a storm watch or warning in Virginia and the Carolinas, where up to 40 inches of rain could fall.

Emergencies declared in several states
Officials in several states have declared states of emergency, including in the Carolinas, Georgia, Virginia and Maryland, where coastal areas are still recovering from summer storms.

Florence's expanse has even captured the attention of the astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station, who have been tweeting pictures of the storm back to Earth.

"Watch out, America! #HurricaneFlorence is so enormous, we could only capture her with a super wide-angle lens from the @Space_Station, 400 km directly above the eye," German astronaut Alexander Gerst tweeted. "Get prepared on the East Coast, this is a no-kidding nightmare coming for you."

Florence is one of four named storms in the Atlantic. Tropical Storm Isaac is forecast to approach the Lesser Antilles Islands on Thursday. Hurricane Helene is veering toward Europe and newly formed Subtropical Storm Joyce is not expected to threaten land. The four storms in the Atlantic come as another one in the Pacific is hitting Hawaii.

Depend on CBS 6 News and WTVR.com for complete coverage of Florence. Click here to track the storm with the CBS 6 Interactive Hurricane Tracker

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Depend on the CBS 6 Weather Authority