Hurricane Florence makes landfall in US with 'catastrophic' storm surges

Lucia Binding, Connor Sephton and Alix Culbertson, news reporters

Hurricane Florence has made landfall in the US as authorities warned of "catastrophic" storm surges amid 90mph winds.

The eye of the storm hit North Carolina near Wrightsville Beach at 7.15am ET (12.15pm BST) after crawling towards land at 6mph.

Hundreds of thousands of people were evacuated as the fringes of the storm caused severe flooding even before the eye of the storm hit.

Florence was downgraded overnight to a category one hurricane - with 90mph (145kmh) winds - but forecasters warned that conditions would only get more lethal as the storm pushes ashore on Friday morning.

At least 280,000 people were already without power as the outskirts of the storm lashed North and South Carolina, and Virginia.

About 1.7 million people have been told to evacuate from coastal areas in the two Carolinas and Virginia.

South Carolina governor Henry McMaster confirmed 300,000 people had evacuated on Wednesday and hundreds of thousands more from the three states have evacuated since then.

The Red Cross said more than 15,000 people in the Carolinas slept in its evacuation shelters on Thursday night.

However, many are choosing to stay put, with some saying the emergency shelters do not accept pets and others with sick relatives saying hotels have pumped up their prices so much it is prohibitive.

As Florence reaches landfall, storm surges are the biggest concern, with 49% of US hurricane deaths attributed to surges.

The hurricane's surge could cover large swathes of the Carolina coast under as much as 11ft (3.3m) of seawater.

And there is also a major threat from freshwater, with warnings of "catastrophic" flooding from lakes, rivers and freshwater reserves expected over parts of the Carolinas and Virginia.

North Carolina alone could see the equivalent of eight months of rain over two or three days, National Weather Service meteorologist Brandon Locklear said.

North Carolina governor Roy Cooper warned: "Don't relax, don't get complacent. Stay on guard. This is a powerful storm that can kill. Today the threat becomes a reality."

Late on Thursday night he requested that Donald Trump declare the situation a disaster so federal aid could quickly be received to speed up the cleanup and recovery.

There are fears that this storm could cause damage similar to what Houston suffered during Hurricane Harvey last year, when homes and businesses were inundated with floodwater.

Ken Graham, the director of the NHC, said: "It truly is really about the whole size of this storm. The larger and the slower the storm is, the greater the threat and the impact - and we have that."

On Thursday evening, Florence was travelling at just 5mph. Hurricane force winds extended 80 miles from the centre of the storm, while tropical storm force winds extended up to 195 miles. Overall, the storm is 400 miles wide.

Airlines have cancelled more than 1,500 flights, and coastal towns across the Carolinas are largely empty after 1.7 million people in three states were told to clear out.

Many spent the night in shelters, sleeping in corridors with their pets, belongings and family members.

One climate model is predicting that as much as 11 trillion gallons of rain will fall on North Carolina in the coming week - enough to fill the Empire State Building 40 times over.

Air Force General Terrence J O'Shaughnessy, head of US Command, said search and rescue is a top priority but that the magnitude of the storm may exceed the ability of rescuers.

He said there are about 7,000 US military forces currently ready to respond to the storm - along with ships, helicopters and high-wheeled vehicles.

One electricity company fears that three-quarters of its four million customers will lose power as a result of the storm, and may not be reconnected for weeks.

Some in the Carolinas have expressed frustration after evacuating their homes for a storm that was later downgraded - but officials have pushed back at suggestions that Florence's threat has been exaggerated.