Screaming winds bent trees toward the ground and raindrops flew sideways as Florence's leading edge whipped the Carolina coast Thursday to begin an onslaught that could last for days, leaving a wide area under water from both heavy downpours and rising seas. Despite its unpredictable path, it was forecast to make landfall near Cape Fear, North Carolina, at midday on Friday.
Florence's top winds were clocked on Thursday evening at 90 miles per hour (150 km/h) as it churned in the Atlantic Ocean, down from a peak of 140 miles per hour (224 km/h) earlier this week when it was classified a Category 4 storm.
The center said the threat of freshwater flooding will increase over the next several days.
National Weather Service forecaster Brandon Locklear said in a video briefing North Carolina would see the equivalent of up to eight months of rain in a two-to three-day period.
Florence is expected to strike North Carolina's coast on Friday, then drift southwest before moving inland on Saturday, according to Miami's National Hurricane Center (NHC).
Some forecasters have predicted it could be the most powerful storm ever to hit the region.
There will be hurricane-force winds up to 80 miles from the centre of the storm, meteorologists say.
On Thursday evening, the Neuse River burst its banks which caused rapid flooding in New Bern, North Carolina, forcing residents to flee as the entire city lost power.
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Storm surges are caused when huge volumes of water are pushed by hurricane-force winds.
The Pentagon has dispatched two ships and a Marine unit offshore to provide help if needed.
A mound of water piles up below the eye which is unleashed as the storm reaches land.
Rescue helicopters and trucks that can navigate floodwaters are also standing by.
Evacuation orders are in place for more than a million people.
Florence's maximum sustained winds were clocked on Thursday at 165 kph after it was downgraded to a Category 2 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, according to the NHC.
The police chief of Wrightsville Beach suggested that those who made a decision to stay give him their next-of-kin contact information.
With the hurricane beginning to batter North Carolina, the state's Governor has asked US President Donald Trump for another federal disaster declaration beyond what he declared earlier this week.
"We'll handle it. We're ready". "The county is larger than Rhode Island; it is not coastal or subject to any potential storm surge where the jail is at".