Coastal residents fleeing a potentially devastating blow from Hurricane Florence encountered empty gasoline pumps and depleted store shelves as the monster storm neared the Carolina coast with 225 km/h winds and drenching rain that could last for days.
While some said they planned to stay put despite hurricane watches and warnings that include the homes of more than 5.4 million people on the US East Coast, many weren't taking any chances.
A steady stream of vehicles full of people and belongings flowed inland on Tuesday (Weds NZT), and North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper tried to convince everyone to flee.
"The waves and the wind this storm may bring is nothing like you've ever seen. Even if you've ridden out storms before, this one is different. Don't bet your life on riding out a monster," he said.
Forecasters said Florence was expected to blow ashore late Thursday or early Friday local time, then slow down and dump 0.3 to 0.6 metres of rain that could cause flooding well inland and wreak environmental havoc by washing over industrial waste sites and hog farms.
President Donald Trump declared states of emergency for North and South Carolina and Virginia, opening the way for federal aid. He said the federal government is "absolutely, totally prepared" for Florence.
All three states ordered mass evacuations along the coast. But getting out of harm's way could prove difficult.
Florence is so wide that a life-threatening storm surge was being pushed 485 kilometres ahead of its eye, and so wet that a swath from South Carolina to Ohio and Pennsylvania could get deluged.
People across the region rushed to buy bottled water and other supplies, board up their homes, pull their boats out of the water and get out of town.
At 2am (Weds evening NZT), the storm was centered 1,005 km southeast of Cape Fear, North Carolina, moving at 28 km/h. It was a potentially catastrophic Category 4 storm but was expected to keep drawing energy from the warm water and intensify to near Category 5, which means winds of 253 km/h or higher.
Florence is the most dangerous of three tropical systems in the Atlantic. Tropical Storm Isaac was east of the Lesser Antilles and expected to pass south of Puerto Rico, Hispaniola and Cuba, while Hurricane Helene was moving northward away from land. Forecasters also were tracking two other disturbances.