At this time, Florence was a Category 1 hurricane.
However, a Cat 2 storm's wind speed is "extremely unsafe", according to the National Hurricane Center, capable of ripping trees from the ground, wreaking major roof damage on homes and causing power outages that may last weeks and affect three million households. This is a powerful storm that can kill. "Today the threat becomes a reality", he said.
People fleeing coastal North and SC clogged highways as Florence bore down for a direct hit in the low-lying region dense with beachfront vacation homes.
"With this storm, what's unique is it's forecast to stall ... dropping copious amounts of rainfall across the Carolinas and into Virginia", Long said. Forecasters are also warning of catastrophic inland flooding that could swamp homes, businesses, farm fields and industrial sites.
"While the peak winds have fallen, they are still strong enough to be destructive to houses and trees, and the water-related threats (storm surge and rain) remain a very big concern", he wrote in a blog post Thursday.
The hurricane was seen as a major test for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was heavily criticized as sluggish and unprepared for Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico previous year.More news: Ibrahimovic happy for '500th victim' Toronto after outrageous goal
Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico last September, blacked out the entire island of about 3.3 million people.
Airlines announced that change fees would be waived for travellers affected by the storm and in need of rebooking flights or postponing their travel until after the storm passes.
Around midday, Spanish moss blew sideways in the trees as the winds increased in Wilmington, and floating docks bounced atop swells at Morehead City.
"But I'm staying", she said. "You can't stop Mother Nature".
The Governor warned that tens of thousands of homes and businesses could be flooded in North Carolina alone. It's unclear exactly how many people fled, but more than 1.7 million people in the Carolinas and Virginia were warned to clear out. As she smoked a cigarette outside the shelter set up in a high school in Washington, Belanger they learned a lesson when they tried to ride out Hurricane Hugo in their home in 1989.
Duke Energy said Florence could knock out electricity to three-quarters of its 4 million customers in the Carolinas, and outages could last for weeks. Florence is now expected to begin delivering tropical storm-force winds in the region by early Thursday, escalating to hurricane-force winds by late Thursday or early Friday.More news: Aggies more valuable than Longhorns
Scientists said it is too soon to say what role, if any, global warming played in the storm. It marks the beginning of a prolonged assault from wind and water, which - by the time it's over - is likely to bring devastating damage and flooding to millions of people in the Southeast.
Besides inundating the coast with wind-driven storm surges of seawater as high as 13 feet (four meters) along the Carolina coast, Florence could dump 20 to 30 inches (51-76 cm) of rain over much of the region.
Frustrated after evacuating his beach home for a storm that has since been downgraded, retired nurse Frederick Fisher grumbled in the lobby of a hotel in Wilmington several miles inland.
"Against my better judgment, due to emotionalism, I evacuated", said Fisher, 74. "I want to get them as far away as possible".More news: Texas Education Board votes to cut Hillary Clinton’s name from student curriculum