Hurricane Florence weakens to Cat 2 storm but storm surge expected to hit 'catastrophic levels'

Hurricane Florence late Wednesday was downgraded to a Category 2 storm, but it is still considered an extremely dangerous storm that could hit the East Coast with an historic surge.

Florence's nighttime winds were down to 110 mph from a high of 140 mph.

NOAA's National Weather Service said in a tweet that its "weakening" only refers to maximum winds. The wind field has expanded and "storm surge potential are still at catastrophic levels."

"Do you want to get hit with a train or do you want to get hit with a cement truck?" said Jeff Byard, an administrator with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Sand bags surround homes on North Topsail Beach, N.C., Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018, as Hurricane Florence threatens the coast.

Sand bags surround homes on North Topsail Beach, N.C., Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018, as Hurricane Florence threatens the coast. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

President Trump on Wednesday said that as Hurricane Florence makes its way toward the U.S., "protection of life is the absolute highest priority."

The hurricane, according to the president, will be "one of the biggest to ever hit the East Coast, one of the biggest to ever hit our country."

TRACK HURRICANE FLORENCE'S PATH HERE

More than 10 million people were under storm watches and warnings on Wednesday as Hurricane Florence — described as “the storm of a lifetime."

Florence was approximately 235 miles off Wilmington, North Carolina, and roughly 280 miles east-southeast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, as of 2 a.m. ET, according to the NHC.

The center says the storm is moving northwest at 16 mph, and has maximum sustained winds of about 115 mph.

North and South Carolina, along with Virginia, Maryland and Georgia, remain under states of emergency ahead of the “Mike Tyson punch” of a storm’s expected landfall in the U.S. later this week.

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Forecasters predict the storm will make landfall Thursday night or sometime on Friday.

In addition to the hurricane-strength winds blowing ashore Friday, Florence has the potential to bring a storm surge upwards of 6 feet in parts of the coastline including up to 13 feet from Cape Fear north to Cape Lookout.

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The hurricane could also produce heavy and excessive rainfall — up to 40 inches in isolated areas in the Carolinas and anywhere between 6 to 12 inches elsewhere in the Appalachians and Mid-Atlantic region.

It will also pass directly over two nuclear power plants — the Brunswick Nuclear Plant, which is located 30 miles south of Wilmington, as well as the Shearon Harris Nuclear Plant in New Hill, about 23 miles from Raleigh.

HURRICANE FLORENCE EMERGENCY CONTACTS TO NOTE AS STORM HITS EAST COAST

The National Weather Service said Hurricane Florence will likely be “the storm of a lifetime” for portions of the Carolina coast.

A few tornadoes are possible in eastern North Carolina through Friday, the NHC reported.

Airlines had canceled nearly 1,000 flights and counting.

Fox News' Lucia Suarez Sang, Amy Lieu and The Associated Press contributed to this report.