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Wilmington, North Carolina, just north of where the hurricane is expected to come ashore, was sunny around midday on Wednesday as the town appeared to be emptying.

Weather Underground meteorology director Jeff Masters said Florence eventually could strike as merely a Category 1 hurricane with winds less than 160 kph, but that's still enough to cause at least $1 billion ($1,525,765,000) in damage.

Life-threatening storm surges of up to 13 feet were also forecast in some areas along with the possibility of tornadoes in North Carolina.

From his orbiting perch, Gerst offered Earthlings yet another warning about the hurricane's dangers: "Get prepared on the East Coast, this is a no-kidding nightmare coming for you".

Surfers head to the waves, Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018, in Virginia Beach, Va., before the arrival of Hurricane Florence.

The center of the storm was in the Atlantic Ocean about 335 miles from Wilmington, North Carolina, on Wednesday evening, the National Hurricane Center said.

Hurricane Florence weakened overnight, but is still a powerful storm.

The last time the U.S. capital declared a state of emergency was in January 2016 when a winter storm dubbed "Snowzilla" blanketed the capital region in knee-deep snow.

Forecast models predict Florence's center may slow to a crawl just off North Carolina early Friday and make a southwesterly turn - punishing the coast while moving perhaps only 2 to 3 miles per hour.

"The largest threat to life from hurricanes is not the high winds, flooding is the deadliest result of these storms".

The centre of Florence, a slow-moving Category 3 hurricane, is expected to draw close to the North Carolina coast on Friday afternoon - perhaps lingering just offshore - then drift southwest along the shoreline before turning inland on Saturday, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

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"Been through it!" Belli said, referring to Hurricane Hugo, which caused widespread damage in SC in 1989. On Wednesday the company activated its emergency storm watcher team, which previously FEMA has said it closely monitors.

And some 10 million people are now under some form of storm watch or warning as the hurricane nears the coast. "Hurricane Florence is the strongest storm to target the Carolinas and this part of our country in decades".

"They told me to bring a pillow and blanket", Whisler said.

In Carolina Beach, North Carolina, which sits on an exposed barrier island, Mike Patel is selling nearly everything in his grocery store at half-price.

Typically, local governments in North Carolina make the call on evacuations.

A state of emergency has also been declared in Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Washington.

Many people in coastal communities have followed the mandatory evacuation orders, but some are vowing to stay put and ride it out.

With the change in the forecast, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal issued an emergency declaration for the entire state to ease regulations on trucks hauling gasoline and relief supplies, and asked people to pray for those in Florence's path.

"I don't care if this goes down to a Category 1", CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said on Thursday.

The East Coast isn't the only area facing the brunt of a storm.