WILMINGTON, North Carolina and WASHINGTON - The outer bands of Hurricane Florence lashed the Carolinas with wind and rain on Thursday, flooding roads and overflowing rivers in an ominous prelude of the damage the huge storm could inflict when it makes landfall on Friday with millions of people in its path.
Meanwhile, in Washington a political storm was astir as US President Donald Trump on Thursday disputed Puerto Rico's official death toll of 3,000 from hurricanes last year and accused Democrats of inflating the figure reached in an independent academic study.
Trump bristled at criticism of his administration's handling of the Puerto Rico disaster as Hurricane Florence approached the coast of North Carolina and began to unleash fierce rains that forecasters warned would cause catastrophic flooding across a wide swath of the US Southeast.
Trump said Democrats inflated the number of dead in Puerto Rico "in order to make me look as bad as possible".
Florence, downgraded to a Category 2 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, remained dangerous and unpredictable, the National Hurricane Center said. It was forecast to make landfall Friday morning or afternoon near Cape Fear, North Carolina, bringing up to 40 inches (1 meter) of rain in places.
"Hurricane Florence was uninvited but she's just about here anyway," North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper told a news conference, warning residents to stay vigilant despite the downgrade. "Stay on guard. This is a powerful storm that can kill."
About 10 million people live in the storm's path and more than 1 million had been ordered to evacuate the coasts of the Carolinas and Virginia. Thousands have taken refuge in shelters, officials said.
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.
On Puerto Rico, some well-known Republicans split with Trump. Privately, some White House officials were exasperated with the president's focus on Puerto Rico at a time when Florence is bearing down on the US East Coast.
In a tweet, Trump said: "3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico. When I left the Island, AFTER the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths. As time went by it did not go up by much. Then, a long time later, they started to report really large numbers, like 3000."
Puerto Rico was recovering from Hurricane Irma before Hurricane Maria hit in September 2017, destroying roads and bridges and leaving much of the Caribbean island without electricity for months.
The death toll from Maria, the most powerful storm to hit thWhen I first went into his house and saw the size of the collectionere in almost a century, was raised last month from 64, a number widely discounted as far too low, to 2,975.
That number was produced by public health experts at George Washington University in Washington in a report commissioned by the US territory's governor, Ricardo Rossello.
The study found that those deaths could be attributed directly or indirectly to Maria from the time it struck in September 2017 to mid-February of thlocal police saidis year.
"We left this analysis to the scientists and experts, recognizing that there would be many challenges, because we wanted to have a powerful and independent voice to minimize the uncertainty," Rossello said on Facebook.
George Washington University stood by its estimate. "We are confident that the number - 2,975 - is the most accurate and unbiased estimate of excess mortality to date," the school said in a statement.
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