The Wilmington airport had a wind gust clocked at 169 km/hr the highest since Hurricane Helene in 1958.
North Carolina's governor's office said a third person was killed while plugging in a generator. "But I think we're ready".
In an otherwise quiet hurricane season, a storm by the name of Florence began speeding toward the US, threatening homes, lives and businesses in the East Coast in mid-September.
Hurricane-force winds extend outward up to 35 miles (55 kilometers) from the center and tropical-storm-force winds extend outward up to 170 miles (280 kilometers). The storm is expected to turn west and then north moving through the Carolinas and the Ohio Valley by Monday, the NHC said early on Saturday.
Its storm surge and the prospect of 1 to 3½ feet of rain were considered a bigger threat than its winds, which dropped way down from a terrifying 140 miles per hour - Category 4 - earlier in the week. As Cooper said, "There's nowhere for the water to go".
"Rescue workers are working in unsafe conditions that will only get worse today", he said.
"From Wilmington to Charlotte, we'll experience between a 500-year and 1,000-year flood event", Trogdon warned in a late-morning briefing.
In New Bern, where a curfew was in place, city authorities said hundreds of people had been rescued from homes inundated with water.
"We've got nearly 20,000 people in 157 shelters", Cooper said.
"The worst of the storm is not yet here, but these are the early warnings of the days to come", North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper told reporters just before the hurricane made landfall.
Florence made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane at 7:15 a.m.at Wrightsville Beach, a few miles east of Wilmington, not far from the SC line, coming ashore along a mostly boarded-up, emptied-out stretch of coastline.
The worst of the storm's fury had yet to reach coastal SC, where emergency managers said people could still leave flood-prone areas. Hundreds more had to be rescued elsewhere from rising waters, and others could only hold out hope someone would come for them.
"We had pretty high floodwaters up until the early morning hours", Risty-Davis tells NPR's Morning Edition.
There is really nowhere for the water to go. Here are snapshots of people struggling to cope with the slow-grinding storm.
"There's a great temptation to want to go back east and to view you property", he said.
Storm surge could be as high as 11 feet in parts of North Carolina, prompting officials to closely watch the rise of rivers in the eastern part of the state. The agency adds that people trapped by flooding should "never enter attics or crawl spaces".
By early afternoon, Florence's winds had weakened to 75mph, just barely a hurricane and well below the storm's terrifying Category 4 peak of 140 miles per hour earlier in the week. Nationwide, airlines canceled more than 2,400 flights through Sunday.
Forecasters warned of catastrophic flooding and other mayhem from the monster storm, which is only Category 1 but physically sprawling and unsafe.
Florence is one of four named storms in the Atlantic at the moment.
The biggest danger, as forecasters saw it, was not the wind but the water: the storm surge along the coastline and the prospect of 300 to 1000mm of rain over the next several days that could trigger catastrophic flooding in a slow-motion disaster well inland.
North Carolina alone is forecast to get 9.6 trillion gallons, enough to cover the Tar Heel state to a depth of about 10 inches (25 centimeters).
To prepare for this storm, businesses have been boarding up, and supplies have been readied for what is expected to be a large-scale relief operation.
The states of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland, as well as Washington D.C., declared a state of emergency ahead of the storm. Thousands of soldiers from their National Guard forces have been mobilized.
However, even those inland are majorly affected.
"There is still time, but not a lot of time", said Derrec Becker of the South Carolina Department of Emergency Management. "After the rain, it's flooding and river flooding as well".