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Coastal North Carolina felt the first bite of Hurricane Florence on Thursday as winds began to rise, a prelude to the slow-moving tempest that forecasters warned would cause catastrophic flooding across a wide swath of the USA southeast.

The large and powerful hurricane has prompted evacuation orders in North and SC and Virginia, as officials urge residents in coastal and low-lying areas to prepare for strong winds, a deep storm surge and a deluge of rainfall.

Businesses and homes in the storm's path were boarded up and thousands of people had moved to emergency shelters, officials said, urging anyone who remained near the coast to flee.

The fallen trees will isolate residential areas, power outages can last for months and most of the areas hit by the storm is expected to be uninhabitable for weeks or months.

Duke Energy Corp. was ordered two years ago to clean up coal-ash ponds in North Carolina that posed risks to the environment and public health.

The monster storm was upgraded to an "extremely dangerous" Category 4 by the National Hurricane Centre yesterday but is predicted to approach the most-damaging Category 5 status.

Five sites slated for closing that are closest to the coast have lower water levels and "can hold significant rainfall", Erin Culbert, a spokeswoman, said in an email. Tropical Storm Isaac was east of the Lesser Antilles and expected to pass south of Puerto Rico, Hispaniola and Cuba, while Hurricane Helene was moving northward away from land.

The storm is now 845 miles east-southeast of Cape Fear, North Carolina.

He added: "The waves and the wind this storm may bring is nothing like you've ever seen".

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"This increasingly severe, potentially unprecedented storm is hurdling to the epicenter of animal agriculture in North Carolina", said Will Hendrick, a staff attorney and manager for a water campaign in the state for the Waterkeeper Alliance.

A hurricane watch is now in effect from Edisto Beach, South Carolina to the southern border of Virginia.

If Florence slows to a crawl just off the coast, it could bring torrential rains to the Appalachian mountains and as far away as West Virginia, causing flash floods, mudslides and other risky conditions. It's now predicted to make landfall somewhere north of Wilmington, N.C., before its center heads inland toward the cities of Raleigh and Durham. "Make sure you have flashlights and batteries", Bowser said.

The life-threatening storm is now located about 905 miles east-southeast of Cape Fear, North Carolina, and is moving at a speed of 16 mph. Seven-day rainfall totals are forecast to reach 500 millimetres over much of North Carolina and Virginia, and even 760 mm in some places.

On Tuesday afternoon, data from an Air Force Reserve hurricane hunter aircraft showed that Florence's sustained winds had picked up in speed again, hovering close to 140 miles per hour.

Airlines, including American, Southwest, Delta and JetBlue, have begun letting affected passengers change travel plans without the usual fees. "This one is different".

"We're in for a real episode here", the governor said.

Gentry encouraged residents to be prepared for the storm by Wednesday evening and as it closes in, to stay at home.

Smithfield Foods Inc [SFII.UL] said it would shut down the world's largest hog-slaughtering facility in Tar Heel, North Carolina, on Thursday and Friday due to the hurricane.


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