Julio Tavar slings another bag of sand onto the back of his truck at Monettes Grocery Tuesday afternoon. He and his wife Ada, just recently moved to the area from Texas. [Chuck Beckley / Sun Journal]
John Gonzales shovels sand into a bag at Monettes Grocery for Kit Bruno Tuesday afternoon in New Bern. Flooding is expected to be a major threat from Hurricane Florence. [CHUCK BECKLEY / SUN JOURNAL]

As the projected path for Hurricane Florence shifted slightly south on Wednesday, forecasters had one message for residents: Don’t let your guard down.

Erik Heden, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Newport, said Florence was a large hurricane and that impacts from the storm would be felt well away from the center of the storm, which was projected to make landfall in the Cape Fear area on Friday.

“It’s encouraging. I’m not going to say it’s not,” Heden said Wednesday morning. “But, we’re still going to have major impacts, and it could shift back to the right. There’s some uncertainty as it gets closer to the coast because of very light steering currents.”

For Craven, Pamlico and Jones counties, high winds to hurricane force of 75 mph remain possible as the storm approaches. Tropical storm force winds of 40 mph could arrive around midday on Thursday. The area remained under a hurricane warning, and residents were advised to complete their storm preparations by Wednesday night.

Storm surge, flash flooding and inland river flooding remain as significant threats, Heden said, and isolated tornadoes are possible as the storm approaches.

The area is under a storm surge warning, and water is expected to push up into the Neuse River, possibly increasing water levels by 9 to 13 feet in areas of downtown New Bern, parts of Slocum Creek in Havelock, parts of the Trent River in River Bend, along the Neuse River stretching west from New Bern, and along portions of Swift Creek back toward Vanceboro. Most of eastern Pamlico County — including Oriental, Bayboro, Vandemere, Mesic, Merritt and Hobucken — could see storm surge flooding, according to forecasts.

Flowing into that will be all the rain the storm drops on the region, with rainfall totals of 15 inches possible in the region, with some locally higher amounts, depending on the exact track of the storm.

“This is going to be a long-lasting rain event, much longer than Hurricane Matthew,” Sara Jamison, a hydrologist and meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said of the 2016 storm that caused major flooding along the Tar, Neuse, Cape Fear and Lumber rivers.

She said the exact points of the heaviest rainfall remain somewhat uncertain, but said the potential for catastrophic flooding similar to Hurricane Floyd in 1999 is possible, particularly along the Trent River in Jones County and Swift Creek in Vanceboro. That flooding was considered a 500-year flood.

“The rainfall forecast has the potential of equalizing or exceeding Hurricane Floyd,” Jamison said. “We don’t like saying that, but that’s the potential. … It’s a very serious, very serious catastrophic flooding event.”

The projected path of Hurricane Florence shifted south Wednesday morning, according to the National Hurricane Center. Still, the storm is expected to approach the southeastern coast of North Carolina before turning west, and potentially southwest, with landfall possible along the Cape Fear region of New Hanover and Brunswick counties in vicinity of Wilmington.

As of Wednesday morning, the storm was maintaining strength with winds of 130 mph. The National Hurricane Center predicted the storm could weaken slightly before landfall, but would remain a major hurricane with winds of 120 mph.

With tropical storm force winds extending more than 150 miles from the center of the storm, Craven, Pamlico and Jones counties remain in the cone for winds that could reach hurricane force of 75 mph, with potentially stronger gusts.

If the track continues to shift toward the south, impacts could be slightly less in Craven, Jones and Pamlico counties, but forecasters stress the region is unlikely to escape some impacts from the storm.

“We like the trend,” Jamison said, “but don’t get too comfortable yet.”