The outer edge of Hurricane Florence began buffeting the Carolinas with wind and rain on Thursday as forecasters warned the monster storm would trigger life-threatening flooding as it assaults the US east coast.
As Florence churned slowly towards the coasts of North and South Carolina as a Category 2 hurricane, federal and state officials issued final appeals to residents to get out of the path of the "once in a lifetime" weather system.
"This storm will bring destruction," North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper said.
"Catastrophic effects will be felt." Federal emergency management officials warned that Florence -- while weakening slightly -- remains a "very dangerous storm" capable of wreaking havoc along a wide swathe of the coast.
"Just because the wind speed came down, the intensity of this storm came down to a Cat 2, please do not let your guard down," said Brock Long, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Warning of looming storm surges of nine to 12 feet (2.7-3.6 meters), he urged residents to take the storm seriously no matter the category, saying "this is all about the water anyway."
Florence was downgraded to a Category 2 storm overnight on the five-level Saffir-Simpson wind scale but it is still packing hurricane-force winds of 100 miles (155 kilometers) per hour, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said.
Winds were already picking up along the coastline early Thursday and some minor flooding was reported on the Outer Banks, barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina, and in some seaside coastal towns.
Myrtle Beach, a South Carolina beach resort, was virtually deserted with empty streets, boarded up storefronts and very little traffic.
And in Wilmington, North Carolina, a steady rain began to fall as gusts of winds intensified, causing trees to sway and stoplights to flicker.
Avair Vereen, 39, took her seven children to a shelter in Conway High School.
"We live in a mobile home so we were just like 'No way,'" she said. "If we lose the house, oh well, we can get housing." "But we can't replace us so we decided to come here." - Monster storm surge expected -
At 5:00 pm (0230 IST), Florence was over the Atlantic Ocean about 160 kilometers east-southeast of Wilmington, North Carolina, and moving west-northwest at five miles per hour, the NHC said.
Steve Goldstein of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Florence's forward motion had slowed overnight and it was not expected to make landfall in the Carolinas until "some time Friday afternoon, Friday evening or Saturday morning."
He said hurricane-force winds extend outward 80 miles from the center of the storm and tropical storm-force winds extend nearly 200 miles out. Some areas could receive as much as 40 inches (one meter) of rain, forecasters said.
"This rainfall will produce catastrophic flash flooding and prolonged significant river flooding," the NHC said.
A tornado watch was also in effect for parts of North Carolina.
"This is a very dangerous storm," said FEMA's Long, urging people still in evacuation zones to heed orders to flee to safer ground.
"Your time is running out," he warned.
Long said the danger was not only along the coast. "Inland flooding kills a lot of people, unfortunately, and that's what we're about to see," he said.
About 1.7 million people in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia are under voluntary or mandatory evacuation orders and millions of others live in areas likely to be affected by what officials called a "once in a lifetime" storm.
South Carolina ordered the mandatory evacuation of one million coastal residents while North Carolina announced an evacuation of the Outer Banks, a popular tourist destination.
In Virginia, 245,000 coastal residents were told to flee. A state of emergency has been declared in five coastal states -- North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Maryland and Virginia -- as well as the US capital Washington.
Duke Energy, a power company in the Carolinas, estimated that one million to three million customers could lose electricity because of the storm and that it could take weeks to restore.
Not everybody was heeding orders to evacuate, however.
Antonio Ramirez, a construction worker from El Salvador living in Leland, North Carolina, said he planned to ride out the worst of the weather with his dog Canelo. "The shelters are not taking dogs," Ramirez said. "I'm not leaving him here.