Cooper: 'A powerful, damaging hurricane is hours away'

- Hurricane Florence has slightly weakened to 125 mph Wednesday afternoon. 

Coastal residents along the Carolinas encountered empty gasoline pumps and depleted store shelves as the monster storm neared its coast with winds and drenching rain that could last for days.

A hurricane warning went into effect from South Santee River in South Carolina to Duck, North Carolina. The warning also includes Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds. A storm surge warning went into effect for the same areas, as well as the Neuse and Pamlico Rivers.

As of 2 p.m. Wednesday, Florence weakened to a Category 3 storm. Warmer waters, which are about 2-3 degrees warmer than usual, are also fueling the storm. 

LINK: See more models on MyFoxHurricane.com

The latest computer models from the National Hurricane Center has shifted Florence's track further southwest, and southeast Virginia is no longer within the cone. The majority of the storm surge and rainfall issues are expected to remain for southeast North Carolina down into Charleston.

As it gets closer to the coastline, Florence could weaken before landfall.

While residents said they planned to stay put despite hurricane watches and warnings that include the homes of more than 5.4 million people on the East Coast, many weren't taking any chances. A steady stream of vehicles full of people and belongings flowed inland Tuesday as mandatory evacuations began, and North Carolina Gov. 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.

RELATED: Main concerns for Charlotte area ahead of Florence are flooding, power outages

Florence is expected to make landfall between Thursday and Friday. It 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.

The coastal surge from Florence could leave the eastern tip of North Carolina under more than 9 feet of water in spots, projections showed. One computer model forecasts 27 inches of rain in Wilmington, North Carolina by Tuesday.

"This one really scares me," National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham said.

Forecasters said parts of North Carolina could get 20 inches (50 centimeters) of rain, if not more, with as much as 10 inches (25 centimeters) elsewhere in the state and in Virginia, parts of Maryland and Washington, D.C.

HURRICANE PREPAREDNESS: Do you have what you need for the storm?

Florence's projected path includes half a dozen nuclear power plants, pits holding coal-ash and other industrial waste, and numerous hog farms that store animal waste in huge lagoons. Duke Energy spokesman Ryan Mosier said operators would begin shutting down nuclear plants at least two hours before hurricane-force winds arrive.

FOX 13 Tampa Bay contributed to this report. 

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