As of 8 a.m. ET, Florence was 530 miles southeast of Cape Fear, N.C., moving west-northwest at 17 mph, the National Hurricane Center says.
Tropical storm-force winds extended 195 miles (315 kilometers) from Florence's center, and hurricane-force winds reached out 70 miles (110 kilometers).
The outer rain bands of Hurricane Florence were beginning to be felt in North Carolina, according to the National Hurricane Center, as the Category 2 storm, with sustained winds of 110 miles per hour and the likelihood of "life-threatening storm surge and rainfall", ranged closer to a landfall.
People fleeing coastal North and SC clogged highways early Wednesday as Florence bore down on the coast for a direct hit in a low-lying region dense with beachfront vacation homes. "We just need to figure out how to make it through".
Forecasters have adjusted Hurricane Florence's projected path, saying that after it makes landfall, it is likely to take a more southerly route than expected.
Cooper said Florence was expected to cover nearly all of North Carolina in several feet of water.
"There's no water, there's no juices, there's no canned goods", Kristin Harrington said as she shopped at a Walmart in Wilmington.
The NHC said Helene was weakening, however, and posed no danger to land.
"It brings multiple threats, including a massive storm surge at the coast, as well as a potentially catastrophic inland flood situation".
After landfall, Florence slowed to a pace that would see the system likely lingering for days.
The South Carolina Department of Corrections' Palmer Pre Release Center a Level 1 Minimum Custody Prison in Florence, South Carolina, was evacuated in advance of Hurricane Florence due to security reasons.
"The worst of the storm is not yet here but these are early warnings of the days to come", he said. "This rainfall may produce life-threatening flash flooding".
Overnight, Florence went through an "eyewall replacement cycle", senior hurricane specialist Stacy Stewart said in an update from the hurricane center on Tuesday.
Stewart added, "We're going to have a fairly stable, powerful hurricane with the potential for some additional slow strengthening over about the next 24 hours".
A high-definition video camera outside the space station captured stark and sobering views of Hurricane Florence, a Category 4 storm. Most trees will be snapped or uprooted and power poles downed. Hurricane-force winds extended 80 miles from its center, and tropical-storm-force winds up to 90 miles.
A tree crashed into Kevin DiLoreto's home in Wilmington, where all roads leading to his neighbourhood were blocked by fallen trees. The Category 4 storm destroyed 15,000 buildings and killed 19 people in North Carolina. With that much size and strength, even a glancing blow could be devastating - something forecasters stressed as they noted the shift in the predicted track.
Elsewhere in the Atlantic basin, Tropical Storm Isaac will strike the islands of the Lesser Antilles, with Guadeloupe, Dominica and Martinique under a tropical storm warning.
Forecasters anxious the storm's damage will be all the worse if it lingers on the coast.
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