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WILMINGTON, NC (CBSMiami/CNN) – While Hurricane Florence has weakened to a Category 2 storm, officials warn that an extreme storm surge and catastrophic flooding are still on the way.
Residents have taken heed of that warning.
Coastal towns up and down the Carolina coast are almost completely deserted. Officials have warned the few that stayed behind of the dangers ahead.
“You put your life at risk by staying. Don’t plan to leave once the winds and rain start,” said North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper.
Cooper and his South Carolina counterpart, Henry McMaster, told the more than 1 million people who have been directed to leave that if they don’t do so, they are on their own.
About 300,000 people have been evacuated from South Carolina, McMaster said. The governor added that a million or more people could be evacuated before the storm makes landfall.
“Even the rescuers cannot stay there,” he said.
Forecasters predict the storm surge from Hurricane Florence could top 13 feet, enough to send water a half mile inland.
The storm is expected to slowly move inland, battering much of the US coast for days.
While Florence is no longer considered a major hurricane, its reach has expanded, threatening residents from Georgia to Virginia.
Florence’s center will approach the North and South Carolina coast late Thursday and Friday but it’s unclear where it will make landfall. As the storm moves inland, Georgia, Virginia, and Maryland will also be in peril.
At least 800 flights along the US East Coast have been canceled Thursday through Saturday ahead of the storm.
In Carolina Beach, authorities have stopped allowing traffic to the island via the only bridge between the island and the mainland. They also instituted a 24-hour curfew. The town is less than 5 feet above sea level and officials worry that as many as 1,000 of the town’s 6,300 residents are planning to stay.
Mayor Joe Benson said the storm will batter the oceanside town through two high tide periods. Storm surge of 13 feet on top of a high tide at 7 feet could overwhelm Carolina Beach.
“Our sand dunes are healthy but they’re not going to be able to keep back a wall of water like that,” he said. “Flooding is almost guaranteed.”
Susan Faulkenberry Panousis has stayed in her Bald Head Island, North Carolina home during prior hurricanes, but not this time. She packed up what she could and took a ferry.
“When that last ferry pulls out … it’s unnerving to see it pull away and know, ‘That’s the last chance I have of getting off this island,'” she said Wednesday.
More than 10 million people are under a storm watch or warning in Virginia and the Carolinas, where up to 40 inches of rain could fall.
Officials in several states have declared states of emergency, including in the Carolinas, Georgia, Virginia and Maryland, where coastal areas are still recovering from summer storms.
Florence’s expanse has even captured the attention of the astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station, who have been tweeting pictures of the storm back to Earth.
“Watch out, America! #HurricaneFlorence is so enormous, we could only capture her with a super wide-angle lens from the @Space_Station, 400 km directly above the eye,” German astronaut Alexander Gerst tweeted. “Get prepared on the East Coast, this is a no-kidding nightmare coming for you.”
Florence is one of four named storms in the Atlantic. Tropical Storm Isaac is forecast to approach the Lesser Antilles Islands on Thursday. Hurricane Helene is veering toward Europe and newly formed Subtropical Storm Joyce is not expected to threaten land. The four storms in the Atlantic come as another one in the Pacific is hitting Hawaii.
(©2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. CNN contributed to this report.)