Hurricane Florence made landfall near Wrightsville Beach, N.C., at 7:15 a.m. ET, creeping slowly ashore – but bringing winds of 90 mph, a massive storm surge, and a rain system that will soak much of the state and South Carolina for days. Forecasters warn of "life–threatening, catastrophic flash flooding."
It's moving at only 3 mph as it drops torrential rains, after slowing down from 6 mph earlier Friday. As of 11 a.m., the hurricane's sustained winds had dropped to 80 mph as it wobbled west-southwestward near the coast, delaying its expected move inland, the National Hurricane Center said.
"Florence is an uninvited brute who doesn't want to leave," North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper told NPR's Morning Edition.
"We know we're in for a long haul here," Cooper said of predictions that the storm will linger over the area. "But I think we're ready."
Florence remains a Category 1 storm, and it's spinning hurricane-force winds up to 70 miles from its center. Tropical storm-force winds extend outward up to 195 miles, the hurricane center said.
Along the coast, floodwaters have been hitting inland towns near rivers that normally discharge into the ocean. But with a storm surge putting pressure on water to head back inland – and heavy rains swelling those rivers – widespread flooding is the result. As Cooper said, "There's nowhere for the water to go."
The No. 1 mission right now, Cooper said, is to save lives.
"We've rescued over 100 people in New Bern, N.C.; people from Jacksonville, N.C., had to rescued from a hotel," Cooper said, describing efforts to save people in towns north of Wilmington where high floods have already hit.
"We've got almost 20,000 people in 157 shelters," Cooper said.
Florence's eyewall reached shore near Wilmington, N.C., just before 6 a.m. ET Friday morning; more than an hour and a half later, the National Hurricane Center announced that it had "finally" made landfall near Wrightsville Beach.
The news came more than 10 hours after the storm began punishing the coastal area with sustained hurricane force winds, the hurricane center said.
In New Bern, Sarah Risty-Davis is one of the residents who opted not to follow a mandatory evacuation order that was issued three days ago.
"We had pretty high floodwaters up until the early morning hours," Risty-Davis tells NPR's Morning Edition. "I'm not sure if it's a shift in the wind or low tide — but the water has miraculously disappeared."
There's still a threat from rising tides, Risty-Davis says. And she's seen reports of people fleeing to rooftops to escape high floodwaters.
Still, she said, "I think we're going to stay put," noting her neighborhood's past success in avoiding power outages and flooding.
The storm surge that has hit New Bern is "approximately 2 feet higher" now than it was during Hurricane Irene seven years ago, the National Weather Service office in Morehead City says. The agency adds that people trapped by flooding should "never enter attics or crawl spaces."
After making landfall, Florence's center is expected to slide south a bit, passing below Wilmington and steaming into South Carolina just above nearby Myrtle Beach. By that point, it could still be carrying hurricane-force winds, the weather service says.
As the hurricane was making landfall in North Carolina, wind gusts of up to 100 mph were reported at Cape Fear Community College in Wilmington, the hurricane center said. At the city's airport, the wind was gusting at 91 mph.
Florence arrived at the Carolina coast as a Category 1 storm, with winds far slower than the fearsome 150 mph of just days ago. But forecasters say Florence's biggest threat, as with all hurricanes, lies in its water: a storm surge of up to 11 feet, and rainfall that will trigger catastrophic flooding.
"A USGS gauge in Emerald Isle, North Carolina, recently recorded 6.1 feet above normal water levels," the National Hurricane Center said of the storm surge, in its 7 a.m. ET update.
As it moves inland, the storm is expected to bring its high winds and intense rain bands across the southeast corner of North Carolina and a large chunk of South Carolina. Rainfall of up to 20-40 inches could fall over the next five days in some areas, forecasters say.
In terms of preparations, businesses have been boarding up and supplies have been readied for what is expected to be a large-scale relief operation. States of emergency have already been declared in both North and South Carolina.
For people who left their homes, sought refuge in a shelter or are hunkering down, the weather service has bad news: after creeping inland, Florence "is expected to slow down even more today and tonight."
By 2 p.m. on Saturday, the storm won't even be halfway across South Carolina, forecasters say. The fear is that during that slow march west, it'll drop torrential rains, flooding low-lying areas and overwhelming rivers.
This landfall has been a long time coming: The hurricane arrived more than two weeks after the National Hurricane Center issued its first advisory for the storm. That advisory came out on Aug. 30, when Florence was developing near the Cabo Verde Islands across the Atlantic. Its designation then was "potential tropical cyclone six."