By Ernest Scheyder
WILMINGTON, N.C. (Reuters) - Heavy rain, gusting winds and rising floodwaters from Hurricane Florence deluged the Carolinas on Thursday as the massive, slow-moving storm crept toward the coastline, threatening millions of people in its path with record rainfall and punishing surf.
Florence, downgraded to a Category 2 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale and moving west at only 5 miles per hour (8 kph), remained huge, unpredictable and potentially deadly ahead of its forecast landfall near Cape Fear, North Carolina, at mid-day on Friday.
For graphic, click: https://tmsnrt.rs/2p5XM5i
North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper told a news conference that the "historic" hurricane would unleash rains and floods that would inundate almost the entire state in several feet of water.
The sheer size of the storm meant it could batter the U.S. East Coast with hurricane-force winds for nearly a full day, according to weather forecasters.
North Carolina will see the equivalent of up to eight months of rain in a two- to three-day period, National Weather Service forecaster Brandon Locklear said in a video briefing.
North Carolinians made last-minute preparations and hunkered down to await Florence's arrival. In downtown Wilmington, a few hearty locals gathered at Cape Fear Wine and Beer pub.
"We lost power at home so we figured we should come to the bar," said Carla Mahaffee, a 33-year-old actor from Wilmington, as she drank a cider. "We've prepared all our supplies at home and frankly, we were bored."
Holly Waters, a retired special education teacher from Wilmington, said she was happy to have a place to go to relax before the storm worsened.
"It's not the middle of a hurricane yet, so why not come for a beer?" said Waters, 54.
Elsewhere in Wilmington, Linda Smith, a 67-year-old retired nonprofit director, was concerned as she watched wind gusts stir up frothy white caps on the Cape Fear River.
"We're a little worried about the storm surge so we came down to see what the river is doing now," Smith said. "I am frightened about what's coming. We just want prayers from everyone."
ROADS FLOODED, POWER OUT
At least 88,000 people were without power in North Carolina with the brunt of the storm yet to come, according to the state's emergency management agency. Millions of people were expected to lose power from the storm and restoration could take weeks.
Roads and intersections on North Carolina's Outer Banks barrier islands were already inundated with water.
Florence's top winds were clocked on Thursday at 100 miles per hour (170 km per hour) as it churned in the Atlantic Ocean, down from a peak of 140 mph (224 kph) earlier this week when it was classified a Category 4 storm.
The storm's center was about 85 miles east-southeast of Wilmington at around 8 p.m. EST.
About 10 million people could be affected by the storm and more than 1 million had been ordered to evacuate the coasts of the Carolinas and Virginia, jamming westbound roads and highways for miles.
At least 12,000 people had taken refuge in 126 emergency shelters, Cooper said, with more facilities being opened.
The National Hurricane Center warned the threat of tornadoes was increasing as Florence neared shore and South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster said the heavy rains could trigger landslides in the western part of his state.
NHC Director Ken Graham said on Facebook the storm surges could push in as far as 2 miles (3 km). Heavy rains were forecast to extend into the Appalachian Mountains, affecting parts of Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia.
Emergency declarations were in force in Georgia, South and North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia.
Despite pleas from officials, some residents rejected calls to evacuate.
Near the beach in Wilmington, a Waffle House restaurant, part of a chain with a reputation for staying open during disasters, had no plans to close, even if power is lost, and on Thursday evening there were lines to get in.
Will Epperson, a 36-year-old golf course assistant superintendent, said he and his wife had planned to ride out the storm at their home in Hampstead, North Carolina, but then reconsidered. Instead, they drove 150 miles (240 km) inland to his mother's house in Durham.
"I've never been one to leave for a storm but this one kind of had me spooked," Epperson said.
(Reporting by Ernest Scheyder; Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Carlo Allegri in Wilmington, North Carolina; Mana Raibee in Sea Breeze, North Carolina; Anna Mehler Paperny in Washington, North Carolina; Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Bill Tarrant, Lisa Shumaker, Toni Reinhold)