High winds, life-threatening storm-surge flooding and significant rain are expected across a much wider area, according to the NHC.
At 11 a.m. EDT (1200 GMT), the hurricane center said Florence had maximum sustained winds near 45 miles per hour (75 km per hour) and continued to produce catastrophic flooding in the Carolinas.
Florence's top winds were clocked on Thursday at 100mph as it churned in the Atlantic Ocean, down from a peak of 140mph earlier this week when it was classified as a Category 4.
At least 280,000 people are already without power as the outskirts of the storm lashed North and SC, and Virginia.
Florence was seen as a major test for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was heavily criticized as slow and unprepared a year ago for Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, where the death toll was put at almost 3,000.
With winds picking up along the coastline early Thursday, federal and state officials had issued final appeals to residents to get out of the path of the "once in a lifetime" weather system.
"Hurricane Florence was uninvited but she's just about here anyway", North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper told a news conference, warning people not to be complacent just because the storm's winds had diminished. The storm caused widespread power outages and coastal flooding.
An American Red Cross aid worker walks through the cafeteria at Conway High School which is being used as a Hurricane Florence evacuation shelter at Conway High School on September 13, 2018 in Conway, South Carolina.
Mayor Beach Mayor Brenda Bethune told CNN traffic out of the SC city has more than quadrupled as residents and visitors evacuate.
"On a scale of 1 to 10, I'm probably a 7" in terms of worry, she said. "We will know a lot more in two days and you will still have two day to get ready - so don't empty the shelves yet". "But we can't replace us so we made a decision to come here".
Florence was making landfall as a Category 1 hurricane Friday morning near Wilmington.
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He said hurricane-force winds extend outward 80 miles from the center of the storm and tropical storm-force winds extend almost 200 miles out. Forecasters are predicting as much as 40in of rain in some localized areas.
Officials said some 1.7 million people in the Carolinas and Virginia were warned to evacuate, but it's unclear how many did.
Myrtle Beach, a SC beach resort, was virtually deserted with empty streets, boarded up storefronts and very little traffic.
Meteorologist Ryan Maue of weathermodels.com said Florence could dump a staggering 18 trillion gallons (68 trillion liters) of rain over a week on North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Maryland. The company said as many as three-fourths of its 4 million customers in North Carolina and SC could lose power. "And I can not stress enough the importance of adhering to the governor's orders for mandatory evacuation".
"This storm will bring destruction to North Carolina". A 78-year-old man was electrocuted attempting to connect extension cords while another man died when he was blown down by high winds while checking on his hunting dogs, a county spokesman said.
"I'm not leaving my child", Foster said.
Several large trees had toppled in the city's historic district.
"I've never been one to leave for a storm but this one kind of had me spooked", Epperson said.
Perched on the porch of his home, carpenter Tony Albright was calmly awaiting Florence's arrival, beer in hand.
"But I'm not afraid", he said. "The only thing missing in there is a hot lady". "I charged the batteries of my electronic devices, I have beers and video games".