Hurricane Florence from space: photos of the hurricane showed in the NASA

Hurricane Florence from space: photos of the hurricane showed in the NASA

Highways clogged with people fleeing North and SC early Wednesday as monstrous Category 4 Hurricane Florence rumbled toward the eastern U.S. as the biggest storm there in decades.

Forecasts project the center of Florence to make landfall around the South and North Carolina border on Friday as a Category 3 or 4 hurricane.

A hurricane warning - meaning hurricane conditions are expected within 36 hours - is in effect for a long stretch of the coast, from the Santee River in SC to Duck, N.C., which is part of the Outer Banks.

And it led to mixed signals from officials in SC, whose governor had canceled mandatory evacuation for several coastal counties.

Reacting to the possibility of a more southerly track, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal declared an emergency but did not immediately order any evacuations.

Because the storm is still a few days from landfall, the cone of uncertainty for Sunday and Monday shows the Florence could go as far south as southern Georgia or as far north as the Tennessee Valley.

The ocean waters that Florence is travelling over are about 2.7 degrees (1.5 degrees Celsius) warmer than normal, McNoldy said.

An estimated 10 million people live in areas expected to be placed under a hurricane or storm advisory, according to the U.S. Weather Prediction Center. Rather than pushing up toward western Virginia, the storm's center is now predicted to move across the middle of SC.

Emergency preparations in the area included activating 2,800 National Guard troops in North Carolina, stockpiling food, setting up shelters, switching traffic patterns so that major roads led away from shore and securing 16 nuclear reactors in the three-state region.

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Cooper said 108 shelters are open across the state, with more than 7,000 people already staying at them, as of Thursday afternoon. The fear is that during that slow march west, it'll drop torrential rains, flooding low-lying areas and overwhelming rivers.

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And the storm surge, which could be as much as 12 feet in some areas, will be on top of sea level rise from climate change.

At 11am local time on Wednesday (early Thursday AEST), the storm was located about 785km southeast of Wilmington, North Carolina.

On Wednesday morning, Florence was extending hurricane-force winds outward up to 70 miles from its center, with tropical-storm-force winds up to 175 miles outward.

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".

Satellite images show the storm has maintained a distinct eye and is well organized.

Florence is expected to start bringing tropical storm force winds to the Carolinas late Thursday. The hurricane center also adjusted its projected track but stayed north of what most computer models were showing to prove some continuity with past forecasts. "Florence is expected to slow down considerably by late Thursday into Friday, and move slowly through early Saturday".

People fleeing coastal North and SC clogged highways early Wednesday as Florence bore down on the coast for a direct hit in a low-lying region dense with beachfront vacation homes.

"In general, we're expecting see somewhere between 5-10" of rain from Florence.

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