The hurricane, which has yet to officially made landfall, has already inundated North Carolina coastal streets with ocean water and left tens of thousands without power, and forecasters say conditions will only worsen as the hulking storm slogs inland.
This is a developing story.
The NHC said the threat of tornadoes was increasing as Florence neared shore and South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster said the heavy rain could trigger landslides in the west of his state.
Staff at the 500-acre zoo near Asheboro rushed Wednesday to move elephants, giraffes, chimpanzees and hundreds of other species indoors to protect them from the storm's predicted formidable winds and torrential rain.
"I'm not going to put our personnel in harm's way, especially for people that we've already told to evacuate", Wrightsville Beach Police Chief Dan House said.
At least 12,000 people had taken refuge in 126 emergency shelters, Cooper said, with more facilities being opened.
In Carolina Beach, North Carolina, authorities have stopped allowing traffic to the island via the only bridge between the island and the mainland.
New Bern Mayor Dana Outlaw said about 200 people have been rescued so far.
Forecasters' European climate model is predicting that 2 trillion to 11 trillion gallons of rain will fall on North Carolina over the next week, according to meteorologist Ryan Maue of WeatherModels.com.
"In a matter of seconds, my house was flooded up to the waist, and now it is to the chest", said Peggy Perry, who along with three relatives, was trapped early Friday in her New Bern home, according to CNN. Roberts says the storm surge continues to increase as Florence passes over the area.
Fayetteville will see winds up to 60 miles per hour. But that, combined with the storm's slowing forward movement and heavy rains, had Gov. Roy Cooper warning of an impending disaster.
Up to 10 million people lie in the path of the storm, which still poses a risk to life and property, although it has been downgraded to a Category 2 hurricane. The rest of these states along with southwest Virginia should expect 5 to 10 inches of rain with 15 inches in places.
Winds bent trees toward the ground and raindrops flew sideways as Florence moved in for an extended stay, with enough of its killer winds swirling overseas to maintain its power.
Florence, with sustained winds of 100 miles per hour, was expected to crawl ashore early Friday and creep inland, creating as much as an 11-foot surge of ocean water and delivering as much as 35 inches of rain over the next few days.