"Many people who think that the storm has missed them have yet to see its threat", North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said.
As Florence drew near, President Donald Trump tweeted that FEMA and first responders are "supplied and ready", and he disputed the official conclusion that almost 3,000 people died in Puerto Rico, claiming the figure was a Democratic plot to make him look bad.
At 5 p.m., Florence had been downgraded to a tropical storm, with sustained winds of 70 miles per hour.
Florence is moving slowly across eastern SC, and according to the National Hurricane Center is producing "catastrophic flooding over North and SC".
Though Florence's shrieking winds diminished from hurricane force as it came ashore, forecasters said the sheer size of the 350-mile-wide storm and its painfully slow progress across North and SC in the coming days could leave much of the region under water.
Forecasters say the center of the eye of Florence has made landfall near Wrightsville, North Carolina.
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In South Carolina, emergency managers were watching several northeastern rivers that flooded two years ago during Hurricane Matthew, destroying homes and government offices.
Flooding and a strong storm surge prompted more than 90 calls to the emergency operation center in Craven County, N.C., for residents trapped in vehicles and homes, spokeswoman Amber Parker said.
That's just the number of customers without power in the Carolinas.
"That's why I got this thing, to use in times like this", he said.
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He said flooding will continue for days and the full magnitude of the hurricane is unknown.
As 645-kilometre-wide Florence pounded away at the coast with torrential downpours and surging seas, rescue crews used boats to reach more than 360 people besieged by rising waters in New Bern, while many of their neighbours awaited help.
A mother and her child were killed in Wilmington when a tree fell on their home on Friday. By 2 p.m., more than 658,000 customers were without power across North Carolina, and the Triangle had begun to experience outages. He said the gust was the strongest recorded in Wilmington since 1958.
In the dark: About 900,000 outages as of Saturday morning, mostly in North Carolina. Roberts said numerous residents live near the Neuse and Trent rivers.
In Jacksonville, a relentless band of heavy rain gutted buildings, drenched streets and left wildlife to battle the rising waters.
North Carolina alone is forecast to get 9.6 trillion gallons (36 trillion litres), enough to cover the Tar Heel state to a depth of about 10 inches (25 centimetres).
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Hanks said a fourth person died while checking on his hunting dogs, and authorities believe he was blown over by the wind. Roy Cooper called Florence an "uninvited brute" that could wipe out entire communities as it grinds its way across land.