Highways clogged with people fleeing North and South Carolina early Wednesday as monstrous Category 4 Hurricane Florence rumbled toward the eastern US as the biggest storm there in decades.
While many coastal residents heeded mandatory evacuation orders, others boarded up homes and businesses and chose to brave the storm, which is forecast to trigger severe flash flooding as it dumps as many as three feet (almost a meter) of rain in some areas. Life-threatening storm surges of up to a staggering 13 feet in some places were also forecast.
North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper warned that staying put would be a grave mistake and said people in evacuation zones "need to get out now."
"This is not a storm that people need to ride out," Cooper told reporters. "This is a storm that is historic, maybe once in a lifetime."
Up to 1.7 million people in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia have been given voluntary or mandatory evacuation orders, according to emergency management officials, as the storm churned across the Atlantic Ocean towards the coast.
The eastbound lanes of several major highways have been shut down to allow for a smooth flow of traffic inland.
"We are already experiencing heavily impacted traffic on some of the evacuation routes," said Jeff Byard, the associate administrator for response and recovery at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Forecasters are predicting that Florence will make landfall in the Carolinas late Thursday or early Friday as a still powerful Category 3 hurricane.