WILMINGTON, N.C. -- The leading edge of Hurricane Florence began lashing the coast of the Carolinas Thursday as the weakened but widening storm edged closer to the southeastern U.S., bearing dangerous winds and drenching rains.
Florence's sustained winds fell to 110 mph overnight, dropping it back to a Category 2 storm. But the still-powerful storm also grew even larger, visible from outer space as an enormous circular mass set to envelop the coastline, with tropical storm-force winds extending nearly 200 miles ahead of Florence's center.
"Please hear my message -- we cannot underestimate this storm," said North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, speaking Thursday at a briefing in Raleigh, the capital. He warned of "battering winds and relentless rains that will last for days," with storm surges up to the height of a two-story building in vulnerable coastal areas.
"We're on the wrong side of this thing," he said.
By midmorning, Florence was less than 170 miles from Wilmington, N.C., lumbering its way toward the Outer Banks, with the eye of the storm expected to make landfall Friday.
Authorities warned that the greatest peril could come from epic rains the storm will drop, more than two feet expected along the coast and significant amounts far inland as well.
At a briefing Thursday, FEMA Administrator William "Brock" Long appealed to coastal residents not to read too much into the drop in the wind speed as Florence approached the mainland.
"This is a very dangerous storm," he said. "Please do not let your guard down. ...The ocean is going to start rising. Your time to get out of those areas is coming to a close."
President Trump offered fresh reassurances about the degree of federal preparedness for Florence, but at the same time renewed acrimonious commentary about last year's response to Hurricane Maria, which ravaged Puerto Rico.
On Twitter on Thursday, the president angrily disputed an academic study citing nearly 3,000 deaths in the U.S. territory in the wake of the storm, saying the figure was put forth "by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible."
"I love Puerto Rico!" Trump declared.
Utility providers, meanwhile, told customers in the Carolinas and beyond to expect prolonged power losses once the storm hits. Officials grimly warned of the dangers of gas-powered generators and candles.
Duke Energy, the main regional electrical provider, projected some 3 million people could lose power and warned that the lights could stay out for a long time. The company was mobilizing thousands of out-of-state workers to help cope.
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