The Carolina coast faces a potential days-long battering from Hurricane Florence, a storm expected to dump feet of rain there as it stalls off shore.
Maryland, though, could be spared the catastrophic flooding thought possible in recent days.
The National Hurricane Center’s latest predictions Wednesday had Florence hovering off Southeast shores for more than two days before making landfall near the North Carolina/South Carolina border, perhaps not until Saturday.
“This is not going to be a glancing blow,” said Jeff Byard, an administrator with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “This is going to be a Mike Tyson punch to the Carolina coast.”
But in Maryland, possible impacts were diminishing as the storm’s track shifted to the south and west. Meteorologists at the National Weather Service’s Baltimore/Washington forecast office said strong winds are “unlikely to be a factor” here, and heavy rain is expected to be a risk only for Southern Maryland and to the south.
Still, the potential for coastal flooding remains a concern, they said. Winds from the east have been causing coastal flooding this week along the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay, with high tides as much as 2 feet above normal in Anne Arundel, Calvert and St. Mary’s counties. Even from a distance, Florence is expected to bring more sustained easterly winds to the region.
Forecasters said it’s still too early to declare an all-clear just yet.
“We could maybe get some outer bands or very, very outer bands of the hurricane,” said Jeremy Geiger, a weather service meteorologist. “Even though it’s down in South and North Carolina, it is a big storm and the track is ever-changing.”
As of 8 p.m. Wednesday, Florence was 335 miles from Wilmington, N.C., moving northwest at 16 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center. Its maximum sustained winds slackened slightly to 115 mph, qualifying it as a Category 3 storm, but its wind field has grown, with hurricane-force winds extending out 70 miles from the center and tropical storm-force winds stretching as far as 195 miles from the storm’s center.
Florence’s intensity was forecast to fluctuate into Thursday and then slowly decrease. But the hurricane center said it is “still forecast to be an extremely dangerous major hurricane when it nears the U.S. coast late Thursday and Friday.”
The hurricane center's projected track previously had Florence charging into the North Carolina coast on Friday. But with models now suggesting it will instead hover off the Carolinas starting Thursday night before finally blowing ashore on Saturday, that could mean severe impacts for a longer stretch of coastline, and for a longer period of time, than previously thought.
With the change in the forecast, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal issued an emergency declaration for the entire state to ease regulations on trucks hauling gasoline and relief supplies. Executives in North and South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia declared emergencies earlier in the week.
The trend is “exceptionally bad news,” said University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy, since it “smears a landfall out over hundreds of miles of coastline, most notably the storm surge.”
The coastal surge from Florence could leave the eastern tip of North Carolina under more than 9 feet of water in spots, projections showed. The Navy, Air Force and Army were moving ships and aircraft out of harm's way. Thousands of Marines and their families left Camp Lejeune, but the base did not order an evacuation as many other Marines dug in ahead of what could be a direct hit.
Florence's projected path includes half a dozen nuclear power plants, pits holding coal-ash and other industrial waste, and numerous hog farms that store animal waste in huge lagoons.
Steady streams of vehicles full of people and belongings flowed inland Tuesday as North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper tried to convince everyone on North Carolina's coast to flee.
“The waves and the wind this storm may bring is nothing like you've ever seen,” he warned residents. “Even if you've ridden out storms before, this one is different. Don't bet your life on riding out a monster.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Sarah Meehan and the Associated Press contributed to this article.