At least 150,000 people were without power in North Carolina early on Friday with the brunt of the storm yet to come, according to utility companies. Millions were expected to lose power from the storm and restoration could take weeks.
Roads and intersections on North Carolina’s Outer Banks barrier islands were inundated.
Florence‘s top winds were clocked on Thursday evening at 90 mph (150 km/h) as it churned in the Atlantic Ocean, down from a peak of 140 mph (224 km/h) earlier this week when it was classified as a Category 4 storm.
The storm’s center was about 50 miles south of Morehead City at around 11 p.m. (0300 GMT Friday).
About 10 million people could be affected by the storm and more than 1 million had been ordered to evacuate the coasts of the Carolinas and Virginia, jamming westbound roads and highways for miles.
At least 12,000 people had taken refuge in 126 emergency shelters, Cooper said, with more facilities being opened.
The NHC warned the threat of tornadoes was increasing as Florence neared shore and South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster said the heavy rain could trigger landslides in the west of his state.
NHC Director Ken Graham said on Facebook the storm surges could push in as far as 2 miles (3 km). Heavy rains were forecast to extend into the Appalachian Mountains, affecting parts of Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia.
Emergency declarations were in force in Georgia, South and North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia.
Despite pleas from officials, some residents ignored calls to evacuate.
Near the beach in Wilmington, a Waffle House restaurant, part of a chain with a reputation for staying open during disasters, had no plan to close, even if power was lost, and there were lines to get in on Thursday evening.
Will Epperson, a 36-year-old golf course assistant superintendent, said he and his wife had planned to ride out the storm at their home in Hampstead, North Carolina, but then reconsidered. Instead, they drove 150 miles (240 km) inland to his mother’s house in Durham.
“I’ve never been one to leave for a storm but this one kind of had me spooked,” Epperson said.