Mon. 1:29 p.m.: Hurricane Florence intensifies to Category 4

ATLANTA (AP) — Florence has become even stronger over the Atlantic Ocean.

Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center in Atlanta say Florence rapidly intensified this morning to a potentially catastrophic Category 4 hurricane with maximum sustained winds near 130 mph.

Florence had reached Category 3 strength earlier today, but data from hurricane hunter aircraft indicate the storm is quickly getting stronger as it moves over warm Atlantic waters.

Forecasters say the hurricane’s strength is expected to fluctuate but it still will be a dangerous storm by the time it reaches the coast of South Carolina or North Carolina on Thursday.

As of noon, Florence was centered about 575 miles south-southeast of Bermuda, moving west at 13 mph.

National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham warned that Florence was forecast to slow down significantly once it reaches shore and linger over the Carolinas. Predictions for heavy rainfall stretched into West Virginia.

“When you stall a system like this and it moves real slow, some of that rainfall can extend well away from the center,” Graham said. “It’s not just the coast.”

He warned people living on the coasts and well inland to prepare to lose power, among other storm impacts. “Rain plus winds equals a lot of trees down and power outages that could be for an extended period of time,” Graham said.

The U.S. Navy is sending nearly 30 of its Virginia-based ships out to sea as Hurricane Florence barrels toward the Atlantic Coast.

Navy spokeswoman Alana Garas said the ships will disembark today from naval bases including the world’s largest in Norfolk. The ships will head to portions of the Atlantic where they can avoid the storm.

Some ships will stay behind because they’re undergoing maintenance and may be tied down with additional mooring and storm lines.

Meanwhile, naval bases near Virginia’s coast are also sandbagging flood prone areas and topping off fuel generators.

Officials along in North Carolina’s coast are issuing a mandatory evacuation order for all visitors and residents on Hatteras Island as Hurricane Florence moves closer to the East Coast.

Dare County officials have announced that a mandatory evacuation order goes into effect on Hatteras Island at noon today. A mandatory evacuation for residents and visitors in other areas of the county goes into effect at 7 a.m. Tuesday.

Gov. Roy Cooper declared a state of emergency and is urging all North Carolinians to prepare.

The state’s Division of Marine Fisheries is also calling on fishermen to start preparing and should remove fishing gear from the water well before the storm arrives. Vessel owners should make sure to check safety equipment is working and remove boats from the water or take them to safe harbor as the storm approaches.

Cooper has urged residents to get prepared for Hurricane Florence as forecasters predict the state could be in the “bullseye” of the storm. He said the state is bracing for three threats from Hurricane Florence: ocean surges along the coast, strong winds, and island flooding. He said North Carolina is “bracing for a hard hit” in what forecasters say will be a statewide event.

Evacuations of coastal communities began today and are expected to continue over the next few days.

Cooper said 200 National Guard troops have already been activated. He’s also asked President Donald Trump for a disaster declaration so the state can get federal help as quickly as possible.

Elsewhere in the busy tropics, Graham said Hurricane Isaac was expected to lose strength as it reaches the Caribbean, but it could still bring rain and strong winds to parts of Puerto Rico.