Storm expected to stall over Wilmington region with 'life-threatening' wind, rain, storm surges and floods

11 p.m. update: Florence weakens slightly

Beleaguered residents of Southeastern North Carolina received a sliver of good news late Wednesday; Hurricane Florence has weakened to a Category 2 storm.

"Little change in strength is expected before the center reaches the coast, with weakening expected after the center moves inland," stated the 11 p.m. National Hurricane Center advisory.

But forecasters warned residents not to drop their guard.

Florence is still expected to bring powerful winds, waves of up to 13 feet, and 20 inches or more of rain to the Wilmington area.

As of 11 p.m., Florence was about 280 miles east-southeast of Wilmington with maximum sustained winds of 110 mph.

The Category 2 story was moving northwest at 17 mph.

All of coastal North Carolina remains under a hurricane warning, with additional alerts about strong rip currents and surf at the beach.

Florence's possible path, according to the 11 p.m. update, shows the storm entering Onslow Bay before making a left turn and heading over southern New Hanover County before continuing into Brunswick County and then eventually South Carolina.

>>READ MORE: Click here for complete coverage of Hurricane Florence.

8 p.m. update: Florence weakens slightly, still life-threatening

Though Hurricane Florence's wind speeds had dropped as of 8 p.m., the storm is still expected to bring life-threatening rain and storm surge.

According to an 8 p.m. update from the National Hurricane Center, Category 3 Florence had maximum sustained wind speeds of 115 mph, down from 130 mph Wednesday morning. The storm was about 335 miles southeast of Wilmington, chugging northwest at 16 mph.

"Some fluctuations in strength are possible through Thursday morning," the briefing states. "Although slow weakening is expected to begin by late Thursday, Florence is forecast to be an extremely dangerous major hurricane when it nears the U.S. coast late Thursday and Friday."

An updated forecast cone from the National Hurricane Center showed a slight southern wobble to Florence's projected path. The National Weather Service forecasts that the storm could dump more than 30 inches of rain on parts of the region as it moves through the area.

Storm surges from 6 to 13 feet are possible at local beaches, according to the briefing.

"The deepest water will occur along the immediate coast in areas of onshore winds, where the surge will be accompanied by large and destructive waves," the briefing states.

5 p.m. update: Florence moving steadily toward Carolinas

Hurricane Florence is now about 385 miles southeast of Wilmington, and is moving steadily toward the coast, according to a 5 p.m. update from the National Hurricane Center.

Florence, which weakened slightly Wednesday to a Category 3 storm, is moving northwest at 16 mph. The storm's maximum sustained winds have slowed to 120 mph, the briefing states, with tropical storm-force winds extending out 195 miles from the center.

"On the forecast track, the center of Florence will move over the southwestern Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda and the Bahamas tonight, 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 briefing states.

The National Hurricane Center continued to warn that Florence will bring catastrophic rain, wind, storm surges and flooding. Up to 30 inches of rain is expected to fall on Wilmington as Florence roars through.

"The combination of a dangerous storm surge and the tide will cause normally dry areas near the coast to be flooded by rising waters moving inland from the shoreline," the briefing states, noting that parts of the region could see storm surge as high as 13 feet.

2 p.m. update: Florence weakens slightly

Hurricane Florence has weakened to a Category 3 storm as it churns about 435 miles southeast of Wilmington, according to a 2 p.m. briefing by the National Hurricane Center.

The storm's maximum sustained winds had slowed from 130 mph to 125 mph as of 2 p.m., the briefing said. But that makes the storm no less dangerous as it marches toward the Wilmington region, with tropical force storm winds expected Thursday evening and landfall anticipated at about 8 a.m. Friday.

"Florence's peak winds have decreased slightly but the size of the wind field has increased. Life-threatening storm surge and rainfall expected across portions of the Carolinas," the briefing said.

The National Hurricane Center continued to warn that Florence will bring catastrophic rain, wind, storm surges and flooding. Up to 30 inches of rain is expected to fall on Wilmington as Florence roars through.

"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 briefing said.

12:30 p.m. update: Hurricane Florence has slowed

Hurricane Florence will arrive a little later than expected, but is still expected to be a catastrophic storm delivering damaging winds, rain, storm surges and flooding throughout the Wilmington region, according to a 12:15 briefing by the National Weather Service office in Wilmington.

The storm is now expected to bring tropical force winds to the region Thursday afternoon, with landfall expected about 8 a.m. Friday, the briefing said. The timing is about six hours later for each event than originally forecasted.

"A much slower track has led to greater uncertainty as to where the storm goes Friday through Sunday," the briefing said. "Life-threatening surge, wind and rain impacts are likely. Florence will approach the coast as a major hurricane. The storm will increase in size and have far-reaching impacts, regardless of where the center of the storm moves."

The latest models continue to show Florence stalling over the Wilmington area, dumping as much as 30 inches of rain. That is nearly the amount of rain Wilmington receiving during its record-breaking summer months, when about 39 inches of rain fell in 92 days from May 1 through July 31.

"Since the track is slower and the storm will reside in the area for a longer period of time rainfall amounts are expected to be extreme," the briefing said.

The briefing warned of "extreme" flooding, winds, storm surges and marine impacts.

11 a.m. update: Florence to likely stall over Wilmington

Hurricane Florence has "changed little" as it continues churning toward Wilmington, according to an 11 a.m. briefing by the National Hurricane Center.

"Life-threatening storm surge and rainfall expected across large portions of the Carolinas and mid-Atlantic states," the briefing said.

The storm was about 485 miles southeast of Wilmington as of 11 a.m. Wednesday. It remained a Category 4 storm with maximum sustained winds of 130 mph. It continued moving northwest at 15 mph and was taking aim at Southeastern North Carolina, according to the briefing.

"This is a life-threatening situation," the briefing said. "Persons located within these areas should take all necessary actions to protect life and property from rising water and the potential for other dangerous conditions. Promptly follow evacuation and other instructions from local officials."

>>READ MORE: Click here for complete coverage of Hurricane Florence.

The briefing said the hurricane will bring catastrophic winds, rain, storm surges and flooding to a huge swath of North Carolina and South Carolina. On Wednesday morning, weather officials said the storm is likely to be far worse than originally anticipated as it will stall over Wilmington and bring up to 30 inches of rain.

"While some 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 on Friday," the briefing said.

8 a.m. update: Florence could be worse than thought

Hurricane Florence likely will be far worse than previously thought, as the Wilmington region is expected to get "life-threatening" wind, storm surges, rain and flooding as it remains under a hurricane warning.

The storm, a category 4 hurricane, was about 530 miles southeast of Wilmington as of 8 a.m. Wednesday, according to a National Hurricane Center briefing. It had maximum sustained winds of 130 mph and was moving toward Wilmington at 17 mph.

A 7 a.m. briefing from the National Weather Service shows the storm stalling over the Wilmington region longer than previously thought and delivering nearly 30 inches of rain to Wilmington, Pender County and Jacksonville -- Tuesday's forecasts showed rainfall amounts of about 10 inches for Wilmington and 20 inches for Pamlico County.

To put that 30 inches of rain in perspective, the record-setting rain that fell from May 1 through July 31 was about 39 inches over three months.

"Today is pretty much the last day for anyone to safely leave and evacuate," Victoria Oliva, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Wilmington, said Wednesday morning. "If you're going to get out ... get out."

Florence is expected to smash into the coast as a category 3 or 4 storm late Thursday into early Friday, according to the briefing. In addition to the hurricane warning, the National Weather Service issued flood, storm surge and flash flood warnings.

"The storm will increase in size and have reaching impacts, regardless of where the center of the storm approaches," the briefing said.

The briefing lists as "extreme" the impacts from wind, storm surge, inland flooding and to marine conditions. It warned of massive storm surges and floods due to wind and drenching rain.

"Since the track is slower and the storm will reside in the area for a longer period of time rainfall amounts are expected to be extreme," the briefing said. "Significant river flooding is expected as a result of excessive rainfall across area hydrologic basins."

On Tuesday, officials compared Florence to storms like Fran and Floyd, which struck in the mid to late 1990s. Oliva went further on Wednesday morning, likening Florence to Hurricane Hazel, which destroyed entire communities as it roared through Southeastern North Carolina in 1954.

"This is nothing like North Carolina has seen at least since Hazel," she said of Florence. "There's a reason we're using words like 'life-threatening' and 'catastrophic.' We don't use those words lightly."

Models released Wednesday morning show Florence's track shifting southwest into South Carolina after it hits Wilmington, though Oliva said most of inland North Carolina will still see significant rain.

New Hanover County has opened shelters at Trask Middle School, at the Johnson Pre-K Center and in Wake County. The county will run additional buses to the centers on Wednesday. They leave at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Wednesday from the New Hanover County Government Center.

Many communities have issued either mandatory or voluntary evacuation orders for residents.

Reporter Tim Buckland can be reached at 910-343-2217 or Tim.Buckland@StarNewsOnline.com.