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Florence intensified into a hurricane on Sunday and was expected to strengthen rapidly as it churned across the Atlantic Ocean and threatened to make landfall on the US East Coast by the end of the week.

Florence could hit the southeastern USA coast late this week as a unsafe major hurricane, with "a rapid intensification" to begin Sunday, the National Hurricane Center reported.

Florence is expected to travel between Bermuda and the Bahamas on Tuesday and Wednesday before approaching the southeastern US coast on Thursday.

The Miami-based center said that it was still too early to predict the hurricane's exact path but that a huge coastal area from SC to the mid-Atlantic region should prepare for a major strike late in the week.

The storm's center was 720 miles (1,160 km) southeast of Bermuda at 5 p.m. EDT on Sunday, and on a track to pass between Bermuda and the Bahamas on Wednesday, the NHC said.

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The governors of Virginia, North Carolina and SC have all declared states of emergency.

Officials in North Carolina were already bracing for impact.

A third storm, Hurricane Helene, was spinning in the Atlantic off West Africa's Cabo Verde Islands with 75-mph (121-kph) winds on Sunday, but did not appear to pose an immediate threat to land.

"Pretend, assume, presume that a major hurricane is going to hit right smack dab in the middle of South Carolina and is going to go way inshore", South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said. "Being prepared is always the best strategy", McMaster said.

Across the Southeast, people were urged to put together emergency supply kits, prepare their homes and research evacuation routes.

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In Charleston, South Carolina, along the coast, city officials offered sandbags to residents. "They're coming in and buying water and plates, and that's about all they're buying".

"Review your emergency plans and gather your supplies now", North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper said in a statement on Sunday.

Swells generated by Florence could cause unsafe rip currents and coastal flooding Saturday in areas including coastal DE and New Jersey, the National Weather Service said.

The U.S. Navy is making preparations this weekend for its ships in the Hampton Roads area to leave port.

The University of North Carolina at Wilmington, near the shore, canceled its upcoming alumni weekend and all classes starting at noon Monday, encouraging its students to leave campus for a safer location.

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Florida-based Carnival Cruise Line was re-routing its cruise ships, but there were other hurricanes to contend with.