The hurricane center's best guess was that Florence's eye would blow ashore as early as Friday afternoon around the North Carolina-South Carolina line.
Florence's winds weakened as it drew closer to land, dropping from a peak of 140 miles per hour (225 kph) earlier in the week, and the hurricane was downgraded from a terrifying Category 4 to a 2.
The barrier island of Emerald Isle is under water, with ocean waves rolling in over a six-foot storm surge and crashing into homes.
The hurricane is now 235 miles ESE of Wilmington, North Carolina and is moving toward the northwest at 17 mph.
North Carolinians made last-minute preparations and hunkered down to await Florence's arrival.
Enough rain could fall to break North Carolina's record for a tropical storm - 24 inches - set near Wilmington during Hurricane Floyd in 1999, said Greg Carbin, chief of forecast operations at the Weather Service's national prediction center.
North Carolina's governor, Roy Cooper, said Florence was set to cover nearly all of the state in several feet of water.
The city of Jacksonville's statement says people have been moved to the city's public safety center as officials work to find a more permanent shelter.
First Warn forecaster Larry Sprinkle says Hurricane Florence will likely make landfall near Wilmington, North Carolina as a Category 2 hurricane early Friday morning, possibly around 2 a.m.
Many people in coastal communities have followed the mandatory evacuation orders, but some are vowing to stay put and ride it out.
The worst of the storm's fury had yet to reach coastal SC, where emergency managers said it was not too late for people to get out.
"This could be a recovery nightmare", said Steve Pfaff, with the National Weather Service in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Officials in the potential path of Florence urged people to evacuate their coastal homes and directed drivers away from the coast. But authorities warned Florence has an enormous wind field that has been growing larger, raising the risk of the ocean surging on to land and making Florence extremely unsafe.
Farther up the coast, in New Bern, about 150 people waited to be rescued from floods on the Neuse River, WXII-TV reported.
"Surviving this storm will be a test of endurance, teamwork, common sense and patience". Computer models that have shown it restrengthening and moving into the Gulf are discounted at this time, but the system will have to be watched for the next several days in case it reorganizes.
Governor Roy Cooper requested the added disaster declaration on Thursday (local time) because he anticipates what his office calls "historic major damage" across the state from the hurricane. Gusty squalls are already impacting the coast. Another 400 people were in shelters in Virginia, where forecasts were less dire.
Prisoners were affected, too.
It's unclear exactly how many people evacuated, but more than 1.7 million people in the Carolinas and Virginia were warned to clear out.
Southeastern coastal North Carolina into far northeastern SC...20 to 30 inches, isolated 40 inches.
A buoy off the North Carolina coast recorded waves almost 30 feet (9 meters) high as Florence churned toward shore.
WIND: Hurricane conditions have reached portions of the coast of North Carolina and are expected to spread elsewhere within the hurricane warning area overnight or early Friday. Meanwhile inland regions of the Palmetto State, North Carolina and Virginia are expected to see 6-12 inches of rain, with up to two feet falling in isolated areas.
As of Thursday at 8 p.m., forecasters with the National Hurricane Center said wind speeds are 100 miles per hour (155 kph).
The result could be what the Houston area saw during Hurricane Harvey just over a year ago: catastrophic inland flooding that could swamp homes, businesses, farm fields and industrial sites. Last year, some airlines caught flack because of high fares in advance of Hurricane Irma. On Thursday night, the hurricane was downgraded to a category. 1. "And you don't need power to sling booze", said owner Eli Ellsworth.