Sept. 12 (UPI) -- Flight cancellations ahead of Hurricane Florence began in North Carolina Wednesday, as authorities and residents ready for what's being billed as the "storm of a lifetime."
The Category 4 hurricane is expected to reach the shores of North Carolina and South Carolina Thursday, and bring life-threatening storm surges and strong 130 mph winds.
The first wave of flight cancellations began at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport Wednesday, officials said.
Southwest Airlines has suspended all arrivals and departures scheduled from Thursday afternoon to Friday night. American Airlines said it would decide early Thursday whether to cancel flights at Charlotte, its second-busiest hub.
American said it will allow fliers traveling through 23 airports in the Southeast to change their flight plans without incurring a fee.
As of Wednesday, 20 counties in North Carolina were under mandatory or voluntary evacuation orders. Prominent beaches -- including Topsail, North Topsail and Hatteras Island -- are closed and under evacuation.
A major concern ahead of Florence is how the storm will impact electricity for millions along the Carolina coast. Last year following Hurricane Irma, some areas of Florida went without power for more than a week -- and residents in Puerto Rico had no power for months after Hurricane Maria.
Power utilities in Florence's path say they have pre-positioned workers and extra equipment throughout North and South Carolina.
Workers from 15 other states are also headed to the East Coast to help, officials said.
"Hurricane Florence is an extremely dangerous and historic storm that may cause widespread and prolonged power outages," said Edison Electric Institute President Tom Kuhn. "Electric companies in Florence's potential path have activated their emergency response plans, and are mobilizing restoration workers, staging equipment, and coordinating preparation and response efforts with federal, state, and local government officials.
"It is important to remember that power restoration efforts could be slowed by prolonged high winds and dangerous flooding conditions. Safety is our industry's number one priority, and crews will work around the clock to restore power as conditions allow."
Online home rental service Airbnb said it's offering free lodging for evacuees and disaster relief workers.
Airbnb initiated its disaster-oriented "Open Homes Program" to connect places with available rooms and evacuees. The company said it's contacted hosts in the Atlanta, Charlotte, Columbia, S.C., Charlottesville, Va., and other areas to "encourage them to take part in the program if they are in a position to help."
Companies U-Haul and U-Box have also offered free use of storage containers for residents in the affected areas.