Tens of thousands were without power. The center is now about 100 miles from North Carolina. Heavy rainfall began after dark.
Hurricane Florence wasn't expected to make landfall until later Friday morning, but residents in coastal areas were already losing power as fierce gusts lashed the eastern edge of North Carolina.
Some areas could receive as much as 40 inches (one meter) of rain, forecasters said. "It's here where Saffir-Simpson may not be best measure of storms true power", tweeted Weatherbell.com meteorologist Joe Bastardi. "Today the threat becomes a reality". Another 400 people were in shelters in Virginia, where forecasts were less dire. "Not only that, but the wind field actually expands as the center of circulation starts to lose some intensity, you'll start to get hurricane force winds further out from the storm".
Ken Graham, the director of the National Hurricane Center, said: "It truly is really about the whole size of this storm".
The hurricane was seen as a major test for the country's Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was heavily criticized as slow and unprepared for Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico past year.
"I ask all Georgians to join me in praying for the safety of our people and all those in the path of Hurricane Florence", Deal said.
Southeastern coastal North Carolina into far northeastern SC...20 to 30 inches, isolated 40 inches.
No area in the United States would be able to easily deal with Hurricane Florence, but the communities in its path this time are more vulnerable than in the past.
A gas station in Wilmington collapsed due to heavy winds.
Wilmington resident Julie Terrell was plenty concerned after walking to breakfast past a row of shops fortified with boards, sandbags and hurricane shutters.
"When that last ferry pulls out.it's unnerving to see it pull away and know, 'That's the last chance I have of getting off this island, '" she said Wednesday. "Because it's Mother Nature". That's enough water to fill the Empire State Building almost 40,000 times.
Stare Down from Space into the Churning Maw of Hurricane Florence
People are seen inside a shelter run by Red Cross before Hurricane Florence comes ashore in Grantsboro, N.C., September 13, 2018. Millions were expected to lose power from the storm and restoration could take weeks.
Officials said some 1.7 million people in the Carolinas and Virginia were warned to evacuate, but it was unclear how many did.
Homeless after losing her job at Walmart three months ago, 25-year-old Brittany Jones went to a storm shelter at a high school near Raleigh.
State Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said driving through floodwaters was a leading cause of death during Hurricane Matthew in 2016. "You will have a compounding effect of storm surge and the waves that will probably be quite devastating to the coastal communities", Ginis said.
The worst may come as the gargantuan storm swirls past the shore and dumps days of rain on mountainous interiors, potentially creating disastrous mudslides. By Friday morning Florence had already sapped power to almost 450,000 customers in the Carolinas, emergency officials said. Workers are being brought in from the Midwest and Florida to help in the storm's aftermath, it said.
As of 8 p.m., Florence was centered about 85 miles (135 kilometers) southeast of Wilmington, its forward movement slowed to 5 mph (7 kph). Highway 12 in the Outer Banks and some roads in Southeastern North Carolina have already seen flooding.
At 11:00 pm (0300 GMT), Florence was over the Atlantic Ocean about 60 miles (95 kilometers) east-southeast of Wilmington, North Carolina, and moving northwest at six miles per hour, the NHC said.
"The primary fuel for hurricanes is a warm sea surface, which is getting warmer with climate change", said Dr Kelly McCusker, a climate scientist at the independent economic research firm Rhodium Group.
The worst of the storm will likely last into Monday for Charlotte before what's left of Florence will move to the north and west. As the storm moves inland it will find a relatively flat area for hundreds of miles.
Some Carolinians have expressed frustration after evacuating their homes for a storm that was later downgraded - but officials have pushed back at suggestions that Florence's threat has been exaggerated.
"Afterwards, I'm going to drink a bottle of whiskey and take a two-day nap, but right now I'm walking the neighborhood and making sure my neighbors are fine, because nobody can get in here".