Hurricane Florence has been downgraded to a Category 2 storm but is still considered an extremely dangerous and life-threatening storm, US officials said.
Faced with new forecasts that showed a more southerly threat, Georgia’s governor joined his counterparts in Virginia and North and South Carolina in declaring a state of emergency, and some residents who had thought they were safely out of range boarded up their homes.
Night-time winds were down to 110mph from a high of 140mph, and the Category 3 storm fell to a Category 2, with a further slow weakening expected as the storm nears the coast.
But authorities warned it will still be an extremely dangerous hurricane.
“Do you want to get hit with a train or do you want to get hit with a cement truck?” said Jeff Byard, an administrator with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Tropical storm-force winds extended 195 miles from Florence’s centre, and hurricane-force winds reached out 70 miles.
The National Weather Service said 5.25 million people live in areas under hurricane warnings or watches, and 4.9 million in places covered by tropical storm warnings or watches.
“Don’t play games with it. It’s a big one,” he said.
Early on Thursday, the storm was centred 235 miles east-south-east of Wilmington, North Carolina, moving north-west at 17mph.
The hurricane centre said Florence will approach the coast on Friday and linger for a while before rolling ashore.
As of Tuesday, more than 1.7 million people in the Carolinas and Virginia were warned to clear out.
Airlines had cancelled nearly 1,000 flights and counting.
Home Depot and Lowe’s activated emergency response centres to get generators, rubbish bags and bottled water to stores before and after the storm.
The two hardware chains said they sent a total of around 1,100 trucks.
Power company Duke Energy said Florence could knock out electricity to three-quarters of its four million customers in the Carolinas, and outages could last for weeks.
Workers are being brought in from the Midwest and Florida to help in the storm’s aftermath, it said.
“In 12 or 18 hours, they may be saying different things all over again,” he said.
Computer models of exactly what the storm might do varied, adding to the uncertainty.
In contrast to the hurricane centre’s official projection, a highly regarded European model had the storm turning southward off the North Carolina coast and coming ashore near the Georgia-South Carolina line.
Reacting to the possibility of a more southerly track, Georgia governor Nathan Deal declared an emergency but did not immediately order any evacuations.
“I ask all Georgians to join me in praying for the safety of our people and all those in the path of Hurricane Florence,” Mr Deal said.
The shift in the projected track spread concern to areas that once thought they were relatively safe.
In South Carolina, close to the Georgia line, Beaufort County emergency chief Neil Baxley told residents they need to prepare again for the worst just in case.
“We’ve had our lessons. Now it might be time for the exam,” he said.
In Virginia, where about 245,000 residents were ordered to evacuate low-lying areas, officials urged people to remain away from home despite forecast changes showing Florence’s path largely missing the state.
Their entire neighborhood evacuated in Wilmington, North Carolina, David and Janelle Garrigus planned to ride out Florence at their daughter’s one-bedroom apartment in Charlotte.
Unsure of what they might find when they return home, the couple went shopping for a recreational vehicle.
“We’re just trying to plan for the future here, not having a house for an extended period of time,” David Garrigus said.
Melody Rawson evacuated her first-floor apartment in Myrtle Beach and arrived at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Georgia, to camp for free with three other adults, her disabled son, two dogs and a pet bird.
“We hope to have something left when we get home,” she said.
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”.
With South Carolina’s beach towns more in the bull’s-eye because of the shifting forecast, Ohio tourists Chris and Nicole Roland put off their departure from North Myrtle Beach to get the maximum amount of time on the sand.
Most other beachgoers were long gone.
“It’s been really nice,” Nicole Roland said. “Also, a little creepy. You feel like you should have already left.”