Winds and rain were arriving later in SC, and a few people were still walking on the sand at Myrtle Beach while North Carolina was getting pounded.
About 9,700 National Guard troops and civilians have been deployed, with high-water vehicles, helicopters and boats.
"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. The Army Corps of Engineers was preparing to start work restoring power, installing temporary roofing and removing debris. "Lots of water, lots of wind, lots of storm surge".
But the hurricane had slowed to a crawl as it traced the North Carolina-South Carolina shoreline, drenching coastal communities for hours on end. As of 1 p.m. ET, the storm's sustained winds dropped to 75 miles per hour as it wobbled west-southwestward near the coast, delaying its expected move inland, the National Hurricane Center said.
"It's an uninvited brute who doesn't want to leave", said North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper.
Hundreds of thousands of people in the Carolinas and Virginia have been forced to evacuate as Hurricane Florence battered the eastern coast of the United States, including more than 3,000 prisoners who have been relocated from jails in the path of Florence. The hurricane center described the storm surge as "life-threatening".
Florence is about 644 kilometres wide and it's winds have dropped from a peak of 225 km/h to 165 km/h, reducing the hurricane from a terrifying Category 4 to a Category 2.
"In a matter of seconds, my house was flooded up to the waist, and now it is to the chest", said Peggy Perry, who was trapped with three relatives in her home in New Bern, CNN reported.
That's about 220 miles from Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, where Florence made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane at 7:15 a.m. September 14, coming ashore along a mostly boarded-up, emptied-out stretch of coastline.
The National Hurricane Center said the storm will eventually push westward and make a right hook to the northeast over the southern Appalachians, moving into the mid-Atlantic region and New England as a tropical depression by the middle of next week.
"The water kept rising and kept rising", he said.
Another 400 people were in shelters in Virginia, where forecasts were less dire.
Craven County public information officer Amber Parker says the storm surge has caused flooding in some downtown New Bern businesses, and Union Park is underwater.
Officials say more than 100 people have already been rescued in the area overnight. North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Georgia were expected to be hit with the brunt of the Category 3 storm. As the recovery from past storms continues in many rural towns, the next storm is about to strike.
The hurricane was seen as a major test for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was heavily criticized as sluggish and unprepared for Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico previous year. She said a hurricane has a way of bringing everyone to the same level.
This landfall has been a long time coming: The hurricane arrived more than two weeks after the National Hurricane Center issued its first advisory for the storm. "I'm not sure if it's a shift in the wind or low tide - but the water has miraculously disappeared".