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Hurricane Florence could be this year’s Hurricane Harvey

Experts fear a Hurricane Harvey-style disaster.

In this NOAA satellite handout image, shows Hurricane Florence as it travels west and gains strength in the Atlantic Ocean southeast of Bermuda on September 10, 2018. CREDIT: NOAA via Getty Images
In this NOAA satellite handout image, shows Hurricane Florence as it travels west and gains strength in the Atlantic Ocean southeast of Bermuda on September 10, 2018. CREDIT: NOAA via Getty Images

The East Coast is bracing itself this week as Hurricane Florence draws near, threatening states throughout the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic regions. Depending on where the storm eventually hits, this week could see a “worst-case scenario” situation for several states, with some areas prepared for a disaster reminiscent of last year’s Hurricane Harvey.

Virginia, South Carolina, and North Carolina have all declared a state of emergency in advance of Florence, which was a Category 4 hurricane as of Monday morning. The storm is currently churning off the East Coast, with its projected path indicating landfall around Thursday evening or Friday morning.

Forecasters have been hesitant to predict Florence’s path — hurricanes often change direction quickly and many spin off into the sea without ever reaching land. But the powerful storm’s steady course has alarmed experts, who now worry the hurricane is likely to make landfall at either its current speed or at a slightly reduced strength.

“There is an increasing risk of life-threatening impacts from Florence: Storm surge at the coast, freshwater flooding from a prolonged and exceptionally heavy rainfall event inland and damaging hurricane-force winds,” the National Hurricane Center emphasized in a notice on Monday morning.

Florence’s current path appears to be a worst-case scenario trajectory, potentially imperiling a large number of states with long-term weather implications.

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Last year, warmer-than-average waters off the Gulf of Mexico allowed Hurricane Harvey to supercharge and then stall over southeastern Texas, submerging the sprawling city of Houston and leaving thousands of people without long-term housing or access to basic necessities.

That could happen again this year. Florence is passing through warmer-than-average water on its way to the East Coast, which is helping the storm to gain speed.

Once it arrives, forecasters are concerned the hurricane will stall over the region, drenching the Southeast and imperiling the Mid-Atlantic, potentially for several days.

To the south, Georgia could be impacted; up north, both Washington, D.C. and Baltimore are eyeing heavy rains with possibly severe flooding. The Northeast has already seen historic rainfall this year and states as far north as New York are preparing for Florence’s aftermath.

States directly in the line of fire are eyeing a far more dire situation.

In 1999, Hurricane Floyd brought devastating floods to North Carolina, killing at least 74 people and destroying land and homes. It also unleashed environmental havoc. Hundreds of hog and poultry farms were flooded, leading to animals drowning and feces and waste being carried into the ocean while jeopardizing groundwater. Widespread algae blooms and fish kills were also later traced back to the natural disaster.

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Nearly two decades later, Hurricane Matthew renewed those concerns, similarly exposing water to agricultural runoff. With Florence’s landfall in the Carolinas projected at 70 percent likelihood, it’s possible that the area could once again be faced with the same scenario.

Another source of concern are several ongoing pipeline projects. Both the Atlantic Coast (ACP) and Mountain Valley (MVP) pipelines are under construction in Virginia. In the southwestern part of the state, the MVP in particular could be vulnerable to a severe storm, potentially endangering both residents and the environment.

Officials are wasting no time in cautioning their constituents about Florence’s power. During a news conference on Sunday, South Carolina’s governor, Henry McMaster (R), warned residents to evacuate.

“Make your plans now. You have to get your medicines ready to go, if you have prescriptions you need to get filled,” said McMaster. “Make sure you lock things up because you may not be coming home for several days.”

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) similarly emphasized preparedness and resilience. “We got to hope and pray for the best but we have to prepare for the worst. The good thing is that we still have a few days for people to get ready,” Cooper said Sunday.

Far from the mainland United States, however, Florence’s winds are likely to spark high waves off the coasts of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, among others.

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And ongoing hurricane activity isn’t limited to Florence. Already this year, Hawaii, a state that almost never experiences hurricanes, has seen landfall from one that dropped in strength to a heavy storm. Another hurricane, Olivia, is currently headed directly for the islands.

In the Atlantic, at least two other hurricanes are gaining strength in addition to Florence. Hurricane Helene is spinning near the Cape Verde islands, while Hurricane Isaac is gaining strength and could hit a number of Caribbean islands still recovering from Hurricane Maria last year. That includes Puerto Rico, where many residents are living under blue tarps in place of roofs a year after the Category 4 hurricane made landfall.