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Strengthening Hurricane Florence takes aim at US Southeast

A rapidly strengthening Hurricane Florence churned across the Atlantic on Sunday toward a possible direct hit on the U.S. Southeast late this week, triggering warnings to people up and down the coast to get their emergency kits ready, map out escape routes and fill sandbags.

Red flags flying on beaches warned swimmers to stay out of waters already roiled by the distant storm, and cruise ships and Navy vessels were set to be steered out of harm’s way. People rushed to buy bottled water, plywood and other supplies.

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Florence crossed the 74 mph threshold from tropical storm to hurricane Sunday morning, and by evening its winds were up to 85 mph as the National Hurricane Center warned it was expected to become an extremely dangerous major hurricane by Monday and remain that way for days.

As of 5 p.m. EDT, Florence was centered about 720 miles southeast of Bermuda, moving west at 7 mph. Drawing energy from the warm water, it could be a fearsome Category 4 with winds of 130 mph or more by Tuesday, the Miami-based center said.

Forecasters said it is too early to know the exact path the storm will take but warned that it could roll ashore in the Carolinas by Thursday.

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Forecasters urged residents from South Carolina to the mid-Atlantic to get ready — and not just for a possible direct blow against the coast. They warned that Florence could slow or stall after coming ashore, with some forecasting models showing it could unload a foot or two of rain in places, causing devastating inland flooding. Forecasters also warned that the threat of a life-threatening storm surge was rising.

“Pretend, assume, presume that a major hurricane is going to hit right smack dab in the middle of South Carolina and is going to go way inshore,” South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said.