Hurricane Florence is not expected to make landfall until Friday morning but residents in coastal areas are already losing power as gusts lash the eastern edge of North Carolina.
The outer bands of Hurricane Florence began battering the coast of North and South Carolina Thursday with strong winds and rain.
Power outages, flooding and storm surge were the main concerns for the state as the Cat.
Hurricane Florence has been downgraded to a Category 1 storm.
As winds and rain picked up during the day and conditions quickly deteriorated, thousands of people moved into emergency shelters to ride out what officials have called "the storm of a lifetime". "If you're told to go, you need to go. We're able", he said.
In addition, hurricane-strength winds are predicted to batter everything in the storm's path.
The center downgraded Florence to a Category 1 hurricane, but warned that it still carried "very risky winds".
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North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper warned people: "Today the threat becomes a reality".
Some areas in the Myrtle Beach/Wilmington area could see as much as 40 inches of rain with storm surges between 9 and 13 feet, overwhelming many beachfront areas and low-lying islands.
More than 80,000 people were already without power as the storm approached, and more than 12,000 were in shelters.
In Norfolk, Virginia, police were alerted to people dressed in fluorescent vests going door to door and telling residents that they had to leave their homes and businesses, The Associated Press reported Thursday.
Florence is widely seen as a test for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), whose capabilities were stretched thin past year as it responded to three major hurricanes.
"This is a very unsafe storm", Long said.
In some counties, almost 1 in 3 people live below the poverty line.
FLORENCE: Landfall expected Friday morning, inland flooding a threat
The family is hoping for the best, given the potential threats the hurricane poses to lives and properties. Cheryl Browning lives with her husband and son, who has terminal cancer, in Richlands, North Carolina.
"One minute we're at a high state of alert, the next we're at a low state, but we can adapt to the situation", said Capt. Eric Abdullah, of the Aiken County Sheriff's Office, who said officials were trying to stay flexible.
Around midday, Spanish moss blew sideways in the trees as the winds increased in Wilmington, and floating docks bounced atop swells at Morehead City.
Rainfalls up to 40 inches (102 centimeters) in some places are expected in a region ranging from coastal North Carolina to northeastern SC, with flash flooding likely, according to the NHC.
As of 11 p.m. ET, Florence was centred about 135 kilometres east-southeast of Wilmington, its forward movement slowed to seven km/h.
"We're a little anxious about the storm surge so we came down to see what the river is doing now", said Linda Smith, 67, a retired nonprofit director.
Utility companies are predicting power outages that could reach between one-to-three million across both North and SC for days and possibly weeks.
Florence's weakening as it neared the coast created tension between some who left home and authorities who anxious that the storm could still be deadly.
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Utility crews had largely stopped stringing power lines during the peak of the storm and said they would not resume restoring power until wind speeds subsided and flood waters receded, which could take several areas in the hardest-hit areas.