The power company has warned that up to 3 million people could be left without power for an extended period of time following Hurricane Florence.
A man walks past a boarded-up business in Wilmington, N.C., ahead of the storm.
The hurricane has been moving at only 3-6 miles per hour as it drops torrential rains.
Screaming winds bent trees toward the ground and raindrops flew sideways as Florence's leading edge whipped the Carolina coast Thursday to begin an onslaught that could last for days, leaving a wide area under water from both heavy downpours and rising seas.
The now Category 1 storm's intensity diminished as it neared land, with winds dropping to 90 miles per hour (135 kph) by nightfall.
"It truly is really about the whole size of this storm, " National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham said. "Surviving this storm will be a test of endurance, teamwork, common sense and patience".
Governor Roy Cooper requested the added disaster declaration on Thursday (local time) because he anticipates what his office calls "historic major damage" across the state from the hurricane.
Charlotte-based Duke had posted roughly 96,000 outages in Carteret, Craven, Pamlico, Onslow and New Hanover counties, while the co-ops listed more than 74,700 outages in the same general area.
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More than 80,000 people were already without power as the storm approached, and more than 12,000 were in shelters.
About 400 Virginians are in shelters, Stern estimated.
Prisoners were affected, too.
More than 370,000 people were without power in North Carolina early on Friday, state officials said.
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The Canadian government has warned citizens against travel to the stretch of the U.S. East Coast that is expected to be hammered by Florence.
Images of fishing piers at Atlantic Beach, North Topsail Beach, and Emerald Isle showed waves pounding the wooden structures.
Coastal towns in the Carolinas were largely empty, and schools and businesses closed as far south as Georgia.
City officials in one North Carolina community sent out an ominous tweet sometime around 2 a.m. Friday.
As of 6 a.m., Florence was 10 miles (20 kilometers) east of Wilmington, North Carolina.
While the center of the storm appeared to take it away from Maryland's Atlantic coast and the Chesapeake Bay, a projection by the National Weather Service showed Florence curling northward up the Appalachian Mountain range after it moves inland over North and SC. When all is said and done, Florence could pour 40 inches of rain along some parts of the North Carolina coast, according to CNN. The storm may gradually drift into northeast SC.
FEMA and the National Weather Service also urged residents along the coast to evacuate.
FEMA has warned that while downgraded, the storm will still generate life threatening storm surge and rainfall in North and SC. As Cooper said, "There's nowhere for the water to go".
Florence was seen as a major test for FEMA, which was heavily criticized as slow and unprepared previous year for Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, which was blamed for almost 3,000 deaths.
US immigration officials say they won't do any active enforcement during evacuations or in shelters during Hurricane Florence.
"We'll operate without power; we have candles".
"This is our only home".
Cheryl Browning, who lives with her husband and son in North Carolina, said they chose to stay put despite the warnings as they also have three dogs and three parrots. "We're able", he said.