ATLANTA — A rapidly strengthening Hurricane Florence chugged 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.
In a tweet Sunday evening, the National Weather Service in New York said: "Hurricane Florence is strenghtening and is forecast to become a major hurricane on Monday. Florence is moving toward the west right now, with an increase in forward speed and a west-northwest motion expected by Monday.
"Locally, at this time, no direct impacts from Florence are expected, with only rough surf, beach erosion, and dangerous rip currents anticipated. However, one third of the time, tropical cyclones do track outside of the 'forecast cone.' Therefore we ask that you stay tuned to the forecast for the next several days," the tweet said.
The Upton office is also among weather service locations in the central and eastern United States that have been launching weather balloons to gather data on the storm.
But from South Carolina to the mid-Atlantic states, 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 being steered out of harm's way. People rushed to buy bottled water, plywood and other supplies.
Florence crossed the 74 mph threshold from tropical storm to hurricane Sunday morning, and by evening its winds were up to 85 mph. As of 5 p.m., it 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 National Hurricane Center said.
Forecasters urged residents to get ready — and not just for a 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.
Models were also agreeing that the storm is likely to slow down later in the week, meaning the potential for an extended period of rain.
The U.S. Navy is making preparations this weekend for its ships in the Hampton Roads area to leave port. The U.S. Fleet Forces Command said in a news release Saturday that the ships will get ready in anticipation of getting under way Monday to avoid storm damage.
Adm. Christopher Grady said in a statement that the decision was based on Florence's current track, which indicates the area could see strong sustained winds and storm surges.
The news release notes that plans could change if forecasts indicate a decrease in the strength or change in the track of the storm.
Swells generated by Florence are affecting Bermuda and starting to reach parts of the Eastern Seaboard, the National Weather Service said.
With Patricia Kitchen