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The Outer Banks of North Carolina are the first to feel the early effects of Hurricane Florence with sheets of rain and some coastal flooding. The large and erratic storm is still in the Atlantic Ocean. It has now weakened to a Category 2 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 105 miles an hour. But officials all along the South Atlantic coast are warning of a catastrophic event. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper checked in with emergency responders today in Raleigh.
ROY COOPER: Are we ready? Are you ready?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Ready.
COOPER: Thank you. Let's make sure we are.
ELLIOTT: He's touring an old Kmart store that's been converted to a staging ground for hurricane response. Dozens of state agencies and the National Guard are working here along with crews from around the country. Brian Haines with the North Carolina Forest Service gives the governor an update.
BRIAN HAINES: So we've had 15 states from around the U.S. as far away as Texas coming here...
COOPER: That's great.
HAINES: ...All the way up to Vermont. So we've - we're all over the nation, and we have folks coming in here to help us out. And that includes some USAR teams, so those are the urban search and rescue folks.
ELLIOTT: Outside, trucks are lined up with water, food and other supplies to distribute once the storm moves through, also the boats and high-water vehicles that will be used to help people trapped by floodwaters. That's Governor Cooper's biggest worry right now.
COOPER: People talk about the changing category numbers of this storm. Maybe the winds are going to be down a little bit. The fact remains that the two things we were most worried about, we are still worried about, which is storm surge, which is going to be significant, and a lot of rain - maybe measured in feet in some places instead of inches.
ELLIOTT: Wind strength might be down, Cooper says, but the wind fields stretch an even larger area, meaning much of North Carolina will experience hurricane and tropical storm conditions. And forecasters expect Florence to linger possibly for days, dumping copious amounts of rain on already saturated ground.
Evacuations were ordered for the Outer Banks' barrier islands and inland communities near rivers and streams. More than a hundred shelters are open, already housing some 7,000 evacuees. In Wilmington, shelters have run low on cots to meet the demand. Mayor Bill Saffo says his coastal city will get the brunt of Florence's landfall, and he doesn't want people to let down their guard.
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BILL SAFFO: So please, everybody, hunker down. Stay safe. We don't want to lose anybody in this storm. The preservation of life is very important to all of us, and it's paramount. So take this storm very seriously because we're going to have - it's going to be upon us for at least 48 hours. And it's going to pound us for quite some time.
ELLIOTT: South Carolina is also bracing for Florence's torrential rains, and many have fled. Jennifer Olson is from Little River, S.C., and was discharged from a hospital ahead of the storm. Instead of going home, she came to a shelter in Wilmington just across the border. It's her first hurricane.
JENNIFER OLSON: Oh, I'm scared to death of flooding and, well, actually just losing my life.
ELLIOTT: Elsewhere, people are preparing to ride out the storm. Ian Devine is walking his dog Teddy on Sullivan's Island, S.C., near Charleston.
IAN DEVINE: He wants to get out on the beach (laughter).
ELLIOTT: Devine says he stocked up on food and water and is ready to wait out Florence at his elevated home just 500 yards from the Atlantic Ocean.
DEVINE: Maybe it's fatalistic. Maybe it's just stoic. What comes will come. You just do the best you can to prepare, and the rest is out of your control.
ELLIOTT: With the storm now nearing landfall, it will soon be too late to flee for people in Florence's path. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Raleigh, N.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.