The centre of Florence, a slow-moving Category 3 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, is expected to strike North Carolina late Thursday or early Friday and could drift southwest along the coast before turning inland, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
The South Carolina Department of Corrections' Palmer Pre Release Center a Level 1 Minimum Custody Prison in Florence, South Carolina, was evacuated in advance of Hurricane Florence due to security reasons.
The center of Florence will approach the coasts of North and SC on Thursday, then move near or over the coast of southern North Carolina and eastern SC on Thursday night and Friday, the NHC added. Home Depot and Lowe's activated emergency response centers to get generators, trash bags and bottled water to stores before and after the storm.
Hurricane-force winds now extend up to 80 miles and tropical-storm-force winds extend up to 195 miles from the center of the storm.
"I had a lot of fear initially, but I am glad to be inside and safe", said Ms Zelda Allen, 74, a retired tax accountant from Hampstead, North Carolina, who was riding out the storm at Wilmington's Hotel Ballast with her husband.
The storm has pretty much followed the forecast track through now, but the issue will be Thursday or Friday as it nears the coast and the steering currents collapse.
Hurricane Florence has weakened to a Category 2 storm as it approaches landfall in the United States - but it is very slow moving and could linger the coastline bringing catastrophic flooding and heavy losses to insurers. Officials say people refusing to evacuate could end up alone, drenched and in the dark, as rescue crews won't go out to help in winds above 50 miles per hour (80 kph).
Hurricane Florence Storm Surge: The Craziest Videos & Photos
ADCIRC predicts Florence's winds will cause 9 to 13 feet of storm surge in some areas along the North Carolina coast . With Florence, the potential for deaths by drowning comes from the storm surge as well as incredibly heavy rainfall.
The Florida Division of Emergency Management sent rescue teams from Pasco County, Temple Terrace and Hillsborough County to Raleigh, North Carolina.
Some Florence evacuees are steering toward Bristol Motor Speedway near the Tennessee-Virginia border and Atlanta Motor Speedway, where campgrounds have been opened for people fleeing the storm.
By 1:50 pm (1750 GMT) the winds had dropped to 75 miles per hour (120 kph) and the center was moving west at a 6 miles per hour (10 kph), the NHC said, and parts of North and SC would get as much as 40 inches of rain (1 meter). Workers at Florence Toyota in Florence, South Carolina, plan to pull high-value luxury vehicles into the service bays on Thursday to protect them. North Myrtle Beach was almost empty Thursday as the first bands of heavy rain from Hurricane Florence approached. "We've just never seen anything like this".
Melody Rawson evacuated her first-floor apartment in Myrtle Beach and arrived at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Georgia, to camp for free with three other adults, her disabled son, two dogs and a pet bird.
A tropical storm warning is in effect for north of Duck, NC, to Cape Charles Light, VA, for Chesapeake Bay south of New Point Comfort, and for Edisto Beach, SC, to South Santee River, SC.
"It's been really nice", Nicole Roland said. "You feel like you should have already left".