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(AFP) — Hurricane Florence strengthened “rapidly” on Monday and is now a powerful Category 4 hurricane, US forecasters said, as governors of three eastern US states declared an emergency and told residents to prepare for the storm.
The Atlantic hurricane’s maximum sustained winds have increased to nearly 130 miles per hour (195 kilometres per hour), the National Hurricane Centre (NHC) said in an advisory issued at noon Eastern Time.
“Florence has continued to rapidly strengthen,” it said. “Florence is expected to be an extremely dangerous major hurricane through Thursday.”
Florence was 575 miles (925 kilometres) south-southeast of Bermuda and the centre of the hurricane was forecast to pass between Bermuda and the Bahamas on Tuesday and Wednesday, the NHC said.
It said Florence, a Category 4 storm on the five-level Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale, could approach the coast of South Carolina or North Carolina on Thursday.
Storm surge and hurricane watches may be issued Tuesday morning for portions of southeastern US states, the NHC said.
Hurricane Florence has the potential to bring catastrophic flooding to areas of the eastern United States already soaked by heavy rain and may be the strongest storm to hit the region in decades.
On its current track, Florence is expected to slam the Carolinas and Virginia the hardest — and the three states issued emergency declarations to speed preparations.
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s office described Florence as possibly the state’s “most significant hurricane event in decades,” and warned of “catastrophic inland flooding, high winds and possible widespread power outages.”
“The largest threat to life from hurricanes is not the high winds,” it said. “Flooding is the deadliest result of these storms.”
The US Navy ordered ships at its major base in Hampton Roads, Virginia, to put to sea, saying “the forecasted destructive winds and tidal surge are too great to keep the ships in port.”
Heavy rain in the Washington area over the weekend has already led to flooding in historic Alexandria, Virginia, local media reported, and the National Weather Service issued a flood watch for part of the Potomac River.
Florence is currently moving west at around 13 mph (20 kph), and is forecast to drench a large swath of the US East Coast running from northern Florida to New Jersey.