Forecasters said conditions would only get more lethal when the storm smashed ashore early on Friday near the North Carolina-South Carolina line and crawled slowly inland.
Power outages, flooding and storm surge were the main concerns for the state as the Cat.
Weather Underground meteorology director Jeff Masters said Florence eventually could strike as a Category 1 hurricane with winds less than 160 kph, but that could still cause at least $1 billion in damage.
"Mandatory" evacuations in coastal Virginia and the Carolinas have been underway for days in advance of Hurricane Florence, but some residents have chosen to remain in their homes. So if you can leave, now would be a good time to go ahead and leave and you can always get back in.
"[We're] letting people know if they do choose to stay and the weather deteriorates, it's going to limit our [emergency] response", she said.
In addition, hurricane-strength winds are predicted to batter everything in the storm's path.
"We may be facing a situation where hurricane-force winds are weaker than anticipated but perhaps impacting a slightly broader region than once thought", he said.
The National Hurricane Center says Hurricane Florence has finally made landfall near Wrightsville, North Carolina.
"If we lose the house, oh well, we can get housing".
Florence has been looming offshore, with its wind-speed fluctuating; on Thursday it was downgraded to a Category 2 storm from a Category 4.
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"This storm will bring destruction", North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper said. Its surge of ocean water could cover all but a sliver of the Carolina coast under as much as 13 feet, and days of downpours could unload more than 3 feet of rain, touching off severe flooding. "Today the threat becomes a reality".
Thursday afternoon, President Donald Trump tweeted that he had just been briefed on the storm and "FEMA, First Responders and Law Enforcement are supplied and ready".
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.
Air Force General Terrence J O'Shaughnessy, head of US Command, said search and rescue is a top priority but that the magnitude of the storm may exceed the ability of rescuers.
The high winds will likely snap or uproot numerous trees.
The company said as many as three-fourths of its 4 million customers in North Carolina and SC could lose power.
"I was really anxious about coming back to Cleveland because of the weather report", said Cheryl Hermsdorfer, a Cleveland area native who managed to book an earlier flight.
A slow motion over eastern SC is forecast Friday night through Saturday night.
Mr Epperson said: "The anxiety level has dropped substantially". Life-threatening storm surge and rainfall are expected.
Two of them, Itagia VeaVea, 25, and Karen Tominiko, 19, aren't as anxious as the others because they're used to hurricanes in American Samoa.