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It's unclear exactly how many people fled ahead of the storm, but more than 1.7 million people in the Carolinas and Virginia were warned to clear out.

By the time the storm leaves the region, forecasters expect that it will have dumped 50 to 70 cm of rain in coastal areas, with some parts possibly being inundated with up to 100 cm.

The National Hurricane Center says "a life-threatening storm surge is now likely" along the North and SC coasts as Hurricane Florence approaches the USA eastern seaboard.

But that, combined with the storm's slowing forward movement and heavy rains, had Gov. Roy Cooper warning of an impending disaster.

Duke Energy reported more than 11,000 outages in Surf City, Emerald Isle and Havelock, and the co-ops listed more than 9,000, concentrated in Carteret and Craven counties.

The NHC went on to say that a few tornadoes could form in eastern and southeastern North Carolina into Friday.

Florence's winds weakened as it drew closer to land, dropping from a peak of 140 miles per hour (225 kph) earlier in the week, and the hurricane was downgraded from a terrifying Category 4 to a 1.

WILMINGTON, N.C. (AP) — Blowing ashore with howling 90 miles per hour (155 kph) winds, Florence splintered buildings, trapped hundreds of people and swamped entire communities along the Carolina coast Friday in what could be just the opening act in a watery, two-part, slow-motion disaster.

The hurricane center downgraded Florence to a tropical storm later in the day. "Storms of this magnitude have struck the USA coastline in the past, in some cases causing $10 billion or less in total damage", Myers said. The child's injured father was hospitalized.

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A third person, a woman, died in Hampstead, NC, in Pender County. Paramedics trying to reach her were blocked by debris. "The shelters are not taking dogs", Ramirez said.

With the brunt of the slow-moving storm yet to come, about 150 people were awaiting rescue in New Bern, a city near the coast, where a gauge on the Neuse River recorded three metres of inundation, the National Hurricane Centre (NHC) said.

Roberts, the city spokeswoman, said Friday preliminary estimates show about 4,300 residences and 300 commercial buildings had been damaged. "Inland flooding kills a lot of people, unfortunately, and that's what we're about to see", he said. "My wife's in a panic right now".

Eudy said his family stayed in their home partly to protect their house. "But we're going to be okay", he said. "This is a 500- or 1,000-year event".

Winds were already picking up along the coastline early Thursday and some minor flooding was reported on the Outer Banks, barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina, and in some seaside coastal towns. Most city and county offices in coastal SC were closed by Wednesday, with emergency services still in place.

Forecasts call for the eye to hit land sometime Friday near the Carolinas border. She said 61 shelters had opened thus far, including 12 that are specially outfitted to help people with special medical needs.

The National Weather Service's Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service is predicting "Major Flooding", its most severe classification, from south of the Pamlico Sound in North Carolina, to as as far south as the Waccamaw River near Myrtle Beach, SC. President Donald Trump declared a state of emergency on the federal level Tuesday for the Carolinas and Virginia.

Hurricane Florence is on a path of destruction that will put millions of people at risk and threaten billions of dollars in property damage, centered on the Carolinas, through this weekend.