More than 80,000 people in North Carolina already were without power as the storm began buffeting the coast, and more than 12,000 were in shelters.
Florence flattened trees, crumbled roads and knocked out power to more than 700,000 homes and businesses, and the assault wasn't anywhere near an end.
"We had a run of them in '96 when there was like five or six, or maybe more than that", he said.
"Catastrophic effects will be felt outside the center of the storm due to storm surge", North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said Thursday morning. "We didn't know where to go", she said.
Its surge could cover all but a sliver of the Carolina coast under as much as 11 feet of ocean water, and days of downpours could unload more than 3 feet of rain, unleashing severe flooding.
Shaken after seeing waves crashing in the Neuse River just outside his house in the town of New Bern, hurricane veteran Tom Ballance wished he had evacuated.
"I feel like the dumbest human being who ever walked the face of the earth", he said.
The Miami-based center says the center of the eye moved ashore with top sustained winds of 90 miles per hour (150 kph), making Florence a Category 1 hurricane in terms of wind intensity. It came ashore along a mostly boarded-up, emptied-out stretch of coastline.
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.
But it was clear that this was really about the water, not the wind. More than ten million people live in the area covered by hurricane watches and warnings. Its forward movement was 6 miles per hour (9 kph).
Florence is one of four named storms in the Atlantic. One of those bears, typically bolted in front of a downtown business, floated on South Front Street, prompting the city to tweet: "Some of our beloved bears have wandered off".
Florence was seen as a major test for FEMA, which was heavily criticized as slow and unprepared past year for Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, where the storm was blamed for almost 3,000 deaths in the desperate months that followed.
Maue said Florence could dump about 18 trillion gallons of rain over a week on North Carolina, South Carolinas, Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Maryland.
Hurricane Florence, as seen from the International Space Station. The few cars out on a main street in Wilmington had to swerve to avoid fallen trees, metal debris and power lines.
A gust of 105 miles per hour (169 km/h) was recorded at Wilmington airport, surpassing the power of Hurricane Fran two decades ago.
Airlines cancelled more than 2,100 flights through Sunday.
"WE ARE COMING TO GET YOU", the city of New Bern tweeted around 2 a.m.
"We moved all the furniture up in case the water comes in but the water seems to be staying at the edge of the driveway", he said, adding that if the wind picks up and the rain keeps coming, that could change. People waded in the water in a hotel parking lot while trying to get back to their hotel rooms.
Ashley Warren and boyfriend Chris Smith did manage to paddle away from their home in a boat with their two dogs, and the experience left her shaken.