Hurricane Florence has already inundated streets on the US east coast with ocean water and left tens of thousands without power amid fears the storm will bring “catastrophic” freshwater flooding over parts of the Carolinas.
The US National Hurricane Centre said that at 7am local time Florence’s centre was just five miles east of Wilmington, North Carolina.
More than 60 people had to be evacuated from a motel at risk of collapse in Jacksonville. Parts of buildings ripped apart by the storm flew through the air.
Authorities in the city of New Bern say there are around 150 people waiting to be rescued from rising flood waters.
The US National Hurricane Centre said that a gauge in Emerald Isle, North Carolina, recently reported 6.3ft of inundation. Emerald Isle is about 84 miles north of Wilmington.
Screaming winds bent trees and led to near-horizontal rain as Florence’s leading edge whipped the Carolina coast on Thursday to begin an onslaught that could last for days, leaving a wide area underwater from both heavy downpours and rising seas.
The storm’s intensity diminished as it neared land, with winds dropping to around 90mph by nightfall.
Governor Roy Cooper has warned of an impending disaster.
He said: “The worst of the storm is not yet here but these are early warnings of the days to come.
“Surviving this storm will be a test of endurance, teamwork, common sense and patience.”
Mr Cooper requested additional federal disaster assistance in anticipation of what his office called “historic major damage” across the state.
More than 80,000 people were already without power as the storm began buffeting the coast, and more than 12,000 were in shelters. Another 400 people were in shelters in Virginia, where forecasts are less dire.
Prisoners were affected, too. North Carolina corrections officials said more than 3,000 people were relocated from adult prisons and juvenile centres in the path of Florence, and more than 300 county prisoners were transferred to state facilities.
Officials said some 1.7 million people in the Carolinas and Virginia were warned to evacuate, but it is unclear how many did.
The homes of about 10 million are under watches or warnings for the hurricane or tropical storm conditions.
Forecasters said conditions will deteriorate as the storm pushes ashore near the North Carolina-South Carolina line and makes its way slowly inland.
Its surge could cover all but a sliver of the Carolina coast under as much as 11ft of ocean water, and days of downpours could unload more than 3ft of rain, touching off severe flooding.
Although it was once a Category 4 hurricane with winds of 140mph, the hurricane was downgraded to a Category 1 on Thursday night.
Forecasters said that given the storm’s size and sluggish track, it could cause enormous damage similar to what the Houston area saw during Hurricane Harvey just over a year ago, with floodwaters swamping homes and businesses.