Last Updated Sep 12, 2018 6:15 PM EDT

Hurricane Florence fast facts:

  • Florence is a Category 3 hurricane “steadily” approaching the U.S. East Coast
  • Storm is forecast to be “an extremely dangerous major hurricane when it nears the U.S. coast late Thursday and Friday,” the National Hurricane Center (NHC) says
  • Florence was centered about 385 miles southeast of Wilmington, North Carolina, and moving at 16 mph Wednesday evening
  • Storm’s center will “approach the coast of North Carolina or South Carolina in the hurricane warning area Thursday and Friday, and move slowly near the coastline through Saturday,” the NHC says
  • The track has shifted somewhat south and west, throwing Georgia into peril as Florence moves inland
  • More than 10 million residents in North and South Carolina and Virginia are under a storm watch or warning; 5.25 million people are under hurricane warnings and watches and another 4.89 million under tropical storm watches and warnings, according to the National Weather Service

WILMINGTON, N.C. (CBS) — Communities along the Carolina coast prepared for the onslaught of Hurricane Florence as forecasters Wednesday warned that the monstrous storm could hesitate just offshore for days — punishing a longer stretch of coastline than previously feared — before pushing its way inland.

The National Hurricane Center’s projected track had Florence hovering off the southern North Carolina coast from Thursday night until landfall Saturday morning or so, about a day later than previously expected. The track also shifted somewhat south and west, throwing Georgia into peril as Florence moves inland.

On Wednesday afternoon, Georgia’s governor declared a state of emergency.

“In light of the storm’s forecasted southward track after making landfall, I encourage Georgians to be prepared for the inland effects of the storm as well as the ensuing storm surge in coastal areas,” said Gov. Nathan Deal.

No storm watches or warnings are in effect for Georgia. But forecasters said there is an increased chance for tropical storm winds to reach Savannah.

At 2 p.m. ET, the storm was centered about 435 miles — 700 kilometers — southeast of Wilmington, North Carolina, moving at 16 mph. It is a Category 3 hurricane with 125 mph maximum sustained winds. The National Hurricane Center said life-threatening storm surge and rainfall is expected across parts of North and South Carolina.

“On the forecast track, the center of Florence will move over the southwestern Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda and the Bahamas today, and approach the coast of North Carolina or South Carolina in the hurricane warning area on Thursday and Friday and move slowly near the coastline through Saturday,” the center said Wednesday afternoon.

The National Hurricane Center said some fluctuations in the strength of the storm will be possible through Thursday morning.

“Although slow weakening is expected to begin by late Thursday, Florence is still forecast to be an extremely dangerous major hurricane when it nears the U.S. coast late Thursday and Friday,” it said.

florence path Hurricane Florence Barrels Toward East Coast

CBS NEWS

Related: Colorado Task Force One Heads Into Path Of Hurricane Florence

The overall 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.”

“This is not going to be a glancing blow,” Jeff Byard, an administrator with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, warned. “This is going to be a Mike Tyson punch to the Carolina coast.”

With South Carolina’s beach towns more in the bull’s-eye, Ohio vacationers Chris and Nicole Roland were trying to time their evacuation from North Myrtle Beach to get the mainland.

“It’s been really nice,” Nicole Roland said. “Also, a little creepy. You feel like you should have already left.”

As of Tuesday, about 1.7 million people in North and South Carolina and Virginia were under warnings to evacuate the coast, and hurricane watches and warnings extended across an area with about 5.4 million residents.

gettyimages 1032113676 Hurricane Florence Barrels Toward East Coast

Tom Thompson works to board up a historic home in Swansboro, North Carolina on September 12, 2018 in advance of Hurricane Florence. (credit: LOGAN CYRUS/AFP/Getty Images)

Some said they planned to stay put, but many weren’t taking any chances. 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. Even if you’ve ridden out storms before, this one is different. Don’t bet your life on riding out a monster,” he said.

President Donald Trump is urging those in the path of the storm to act now to “get out of its way.”

“Don’t play games with it. It’s a big one,” he told residents.

In a videotaped message from the Rose Garden, he said the federal government and first responders stand ready to assist, but even so, “bad things can happen when you’re talking about a storm this size.”

Mr. Trump has declared states of emergency for North and South Carolina and Virginia, opening the way for federal aid. All three states ordered mass evacuations along the coast.

gettyimages 1031589062 Hurricane Florence Barrels Toward East Coast

President Donald Trump speaks to members of the media following a briefing on Hurricane Florence in the Oval Office at the White House September 11, 2018 in Washington, DC. (credit: ZACH GIBSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Getting out of harm’s way has proved difficult since airlines were canceling flights and motorists had a hard time finding fuel.

Flight-tracking service FlightAware said Wednesday that it was starting to see airlines file cancellations for airports in Florence’s path. As of early afternoon, total cancellations within, into, or out of the U.S. on Wednesday was 230, while 505 flights were cancelled for Thursday, it said.

CBS News correspondent David Begnaud reported that people living in the barrier island community of Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, were bracing for a possible direct impact.

“We got a long trip,” Phillip Payne told Begnaud as he packed up his truck for the drive to Charlotte Tuesday with his fiance and two dogs. “It’s definitely been a learning experience, but we’re definitely getting out of here. Better safe than sorry.”

Long lines formed at service stations, and some started running out of gas as far west as Raleigh, with bright yellow bags, signs or rags placed over the pumps to show they were out of order. Some store shelves were picked clean.

gettyimages 1032279540 Hurricane Florence Barrels Toward East Coast

MYRTLE BEACH, SC – SEPTEMBER 12: The bread shelves are bare in a grocery store as people stock up on food ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Florence on September 12, 2018 in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

“There’s no water. There’s no juices. There’s no canned goods,” Kristin Harrington said as she shopped at a Walmart in Wilmington.

Related: Anheuser-Busch Cans Water For Hurricane Florence Victims

People weren’t the only ones evacuating to get out of the path of Hurricane Florence. Eight dogs and 18 cats from a shelter in Norfolk, Virginia, were sent to two shelters in Washington to make room for pets expected to be displaced by the hurricane.

The coastal surge from Florence could leave the eastern tip of North Carolina under more than 9 feet  — 2.75 meters — 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 evacuated from Camp Lejeune, leaving the rest to dig 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. Duke Energy spokesman Ryan Mosier said operators would begin shutting down nuclear plants at least two hours before hurricane-force winds arrive.

The National Weather Service said Florence “will likely be the storm of a lifetime for portions of the Carolina coast.” That’s saying a lot given the impacts from Hurricanes Diana, Hugo, Fran, Bonnie, Floyd and Matthew.

Read Also: Trump Administration Redirected Nearly $10M Of FEMA Funds To ICE, Documents Show

Florence is the most dangerous of three tropical systems in the Atlantic. Tropical Storm Isaac was expected to pass south of Puerto Rico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Cuba, while Hurricane Helene was moving northward away from land. Forecasters also were tracking two other disturbances.

Federal officials begged residents to put together emergency kits and have a plan on where to go.

“This storm is going to knock out power days into weeks. It’s going to destroy infrastructure. It’s going to destroy homes,” said Byard, the FEMA official.

He said Wednesday it was imperative that locals heed evacuation warnings and that the time to flee Florence is now.

“Today’s the day,” he said. “It’s time for our citizens to be a part of the team. Heed those warnings and evacuate if you’re in one of the zones.”

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