As inevitable as Hurricane Florence’s landfall in the Carolinas appears, the storm's meandering path beyond that — and the foot or two of rain it could dump — remained uncertain Tuesday as preparations and evacuations continued.
Forecasts were suggesting that the same force steering Florence toward the Southeast coast could prevent it from significantly affecting Maryland, instead pushing it slowly toward Georgia or Tennessee.
But meteorologists nonetheless warned that even a relatively minor brush with the hurricane — potentially the strongest ever to hit the United States north of Florida — could create serious problems. That’s especially true given that rivers and streams are high and soils are already saturated from weeks, if not months, of persistent rain.
“The wind could knock down trees and the flood could ruin crops, but it all depends on the track of the hurricane and how far away it is,” said Isha Renta, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Baltimore/Washington forecast office. “It’s hard to tell just yet how much of a concern it is.”
By Tuesday evening, hurricane and storm surge warnings were posted from Charleston, S.C., to the Virginia/North Carolina border as coastal residents were told to evacuate before it is too late. Florence weakened and then restrengthened Tuesday, with sustained winds of up to 140 mph, and was forecast to potentially reach Category 5 status by Wednesday afternoon before making landfall in North Carolina on Friday.
“While some weakening is expected on Thursday, Florence is forecast to be an extremely dangerous major hurricane through landfall,” the National Hurricane Center said Tuesday evening.
Florence is being pushed onto shore by high pressure over the North Atlantic and eastern Canada, blocking its path out to sea.
By the time it makes landfall, its forward motion is forecast to slow significantly. With no clear forces directing its path from there, the storm becomes all the more unpredictable, said Dan Hofmann, another weather service meteorologist.
“The storm’s trying to find its way around an area of high pressure that’s been positioned to our north and east over the past several days,” Hofmann said. “What route it takes is a big question mark.”
Because of the risk, governors from Maryland to South Carolina have declared states of emergency to prepare for the possibility of a deluge from the slow-moving storm.
In Maryland, officials are most concerned about inland flooding. On Tuesday, they offered free sand for residents to shovel into bags in low-lying and flood-prone areas, including Ellicott City and Joppa.
But it was still too early to predict precise rainfall totals or flood potential.
“As we move closer to the event and the inland track of Florence becomes clearer, so will the rainfall totals and resultant flooding impacts across our area,” weather service meteorologists wrote in a forecast discussion Tuesday. “With Florence stalling out, the potential for heavy rainfall exists from Friday through Sunday.”
Forecasters said parts of North Carolina could get 20 inches of rain, if not more, with as much as 10 inches elsewhere in the state and in Virginia. The potential for significant rainfall also was forecast in parts of Maryland and Washington.
One trusted computer model, called the European simulation, predicted more than 45 inches of rain in parts of North Carolina.
Utility crews were preparing for the possibility that downed trees could cause widespread power outages. Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. asked 800 to 900 crew members from sister utilities in Chicago and Philadelphia to come to the Baltimore area in the next couple of days, said Justin Mulcahy, a BGE spokesman.
The concern is that because the ground is already soft from heavy rain — the region has received as much as three times its normal precipitation since May and already several inches this month — trees could topple onto power lines relatively easily.
Florence’s intensity has only heightened those worries.
“This one has the potential of being severe and we want to be ready for it,” said Jerry Schmidt, BGE’s manager of material and logistics.
Erik Dihle, an arborist with the Baltimore Department of Recreation and Parks, said the city has lost few trees because of heavy rainfall so far this year. There are 2.6 million trees in Baltimore, including 135,000 along streets, and in the past month and a half of rain, fewer than 100 have fallen, he said.
But Florence has the potential to increase those numbers. As of Tuesday, the hurricane center was forecasting that winds of up to 73 mph could arrive in parts of Maryland by Thursday night or Friday morning.
“We remain on alert because the ground is saturated,” Dihle said. “More trees could be susceptible, and the public should be on alert, too.”
As Maryland watched for forecasts to become clearer, motorists across the Southeast streamed inland on highways that were converted to one-way routes Tuesday. More than 1 million people in three states were ordered to get out of the way of the storm.
Forecasters and politicians pleaded with the public to heed the warnings and minced no words in describing the threat.
“This storm is a monster,” said North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper. “It’s big and it’s vicious. It is an extremely, dangerous, life-threatening, historic hurricane.”
President Donald Trump declared states of emergency for North and South Carolina, opening the way for federal aid. He said the federal government was “absolutely, totally prepared” for Florence.