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Phoenix first responders deployed to North Carolina for Hurricane Florence

Preston Guiher carries a sheet of plywood as he prepares to board up a Wells Fargo bank in preparation for Hurricane Florence in downtown Charleston, S.C., Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2018. (AP Photo/Mic Smith)

PHOENIX — Dozens of first responders in Phoenix are heading east this week to help prepare residents for Hurricane Florence, just days before the storm was expected to make landfall.

Capt. Kenny Overton with the Phoenix Fire Department told KTAR News 92.3 FM that the Arizona Task Force 1 urban search and rescue team started the 36-hour drive to Raleigh, North Carolina, on Monday.

Overton said the team, which is made up of 25 Phoenix firefighters and 10 support personnel, was deployed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency at 8 p.m., less than three days before the storm is expected to strike the Carolinas.

“They were told to anticipate everything,” Overton said. “They are going with a full deployment of equipment, they are ready for whatever could happen in this situation.”

Florence’s top winds dipped to 130 mph Tuesday morning, but it remained a Category 4 storm and was expected to approach the most-damaging Category 5 status as it slowed and strengthened over very warm ocean water off the coast of North and South Carolina.

The center of the massive storm is then forecast to meander Thursday, Friday and Saturday over a stretch of coastline saturated by rising seas, inundating several states and triggering life-threatening floods.

Seven-day rainfall totals are forecast to reach 10 to 20 inches over much of North Carolina and Virginia, and even 30 inches in some places. Combined with high tides, the storm surge could swell as high as 12 feet.

Overton said the group is more than prepared to respond to the storm.

“They have been training for this all year long, day in and day out. This is what we do,” he added. “They are ready to do this wherever they have to.”

And this team has the experience necessary to respond to such a large storm: The Arizona Task Force 1 urban search and rescue team rescued 17 adults and children who were flooded from their homes in Katy, Texas, following last year’s deadly Hurricane Harvey.

Overton said the team is expected to be deployed to the East Coast for at least two weeks, but could be out there longer.

More than two dozen volunteers with the American Red Cross in Arizona were also deployed to help with the hurricane.

A warm ocean gives hurricanes their fuel, and Florence is moving over an area with water temperatures nearing 85 degrees, hurricane specialist Eric Blake wrote. With little wind shear to pull the storm apart, hurricane-strength winds have been expanding to 40 miles from the eye of the storm, and tropical-storm-force winds 150 miles from the center.

“Unfortunately, the models were right. Florence has rapidly intensified into an extremely dangerous hurricane,” Blake wrote Monday evening that top sustained winds would approach the 157 mph threshold for a worst-case Category 5 scenario. Tuesday morning’s data from hurricane-hunting aircraft supports this forecast, the center said.

By 8 a.m. Tuesday, Florence’s eye was about 950 miles east-southeast of Cape Fear, North Carolina, and moving west-northwest at 15 mph. It was moving between Bermuda and the Bahamas on Tuesday and Wednesday before nearing the Carolinas on Thursday.

Florence’s size is “staggering,” National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham warned.

“We could cover several states easily with the cloud cover alone,” Graham said. “This is not just a coastal event.”

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said his state is “in the bullseye” and urged people to “get ready now.”

The very center of that bullseye may be Camp Lejeune, the sprawling Marine Corps training base, where authorities were opening emergency operation centers and staging equipment.

“Please be prepared, be careful and be SAFE!” tweeted President Donald Trump, adding: “WE are here for you.”

Trump also canceled a campaign rally in Cape Girardeau, Missouri that was set to take place on Thursday due to safety reasons.

Trump had planned to urge the defeat of Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill at the rally. He’s backing her Republican challenger, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley.

The president also told reporters on Tuesday that federal officials are “absolutely and totally prepared” to respond to the storm.

Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser declared a state of emergency on Tuesday as the nation’s capital prepares for heavy rains, flooding and power outages. She said it was a necessary step to “ensure we have the resources and support” to handle several days of torrential rain.

South Carolina’s governor ordered the state’s entire coastline evacuated starting at noon Tuesday and predicted that 1 million people would flee as highways reverse directions. Coastal evacuations were in effect for Virginia and North Carolina as well.

Florence could hit the Carolinas harder than any hurricane since Hazel packed 130 mph winds in 1954. That Category 4 storm destroyed 15,000 buildings and killed 19 people in North Carolina. In the six decades since then, many thousands of people have moved to the coast.

On the other side of the country, Hawaii officials urged residents and visitors to be prepared as a strong tropical storm approached the island state.

Olivia was a few hundred miles east of Hilo late Monday with maximum sustained winds of 70 mph. It was downgraded from a hurricane earlier in the day after wind shear weakened the storm.

But forecasters say Olivia may drop 10 to 15 inches of rain on the Big Island and Maui County, though some areas could get 20 inches.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell cautioned against complacency, noting tropical storms have led to flooding in Honolulu in recent years.

“We don’t know what it’s going to look like as Olivia approaches the Hawaiian Islands. So please, folks, don’t let your guard down,” Caldwell said.

He said crews were working hard to clear debris from streams so they wouldn’t block expected increased water flows.

KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Jim Cross and The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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