WILMINGTON, N.C. (AP) — Hurricane Florence already has inundated coastal streets with ocean water and left tens of thousands without power, and forecasters say that "catastrophic" freshwater flooding is expected over portions of the Carolinas as Hurricane Florence inches closer to the U.S. East Coast.
The National Hurricane Center said early Friday that Florence's eyewall is beginning to approach the North Carolina coast bringing with it life-threatening storm surge.
The center said that a gauge in Emerald Isle, North Carolina, recently reported 6.3 feet (1.92 meters) of inundation. Emerald Isle is about 84 miles (135 kilometers) north of Wilmington.
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 storm's intensity diminished as it neared land, with winds dropping to around 90 mph (144 kph) by nightfall. But that, combined with the storm's slowing forward movement and heavy rains, had Gov. Roy Cooper warning of an impending disaster.
"The worst of the storm is not yet here but these are early warnings of the days to come," he said. "Surviving this storm will be a test of endurance, teamwork, common sense and patience."
Photos of the week: 9/7 - 9/14
Photos of the week: 9/7 - 9/14
ATLANTIC BEACH, NC - SEPTEMBER 13: Portions of a boat dock and boardwalk are destroyed by powerful wind and waves as Hurricane Florence arrives September 13, 2018 in Atlantic Beach, United States. Coastal cities in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia are under evacuation orders as the Category 2 hurricane approaches the United States. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Guests visit National 9/11 Memorial in front of stage they are listening to the readings of victims' names, during ceremonies marking the 17th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, at the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York, U.S., September 11, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
U.S. President Donald Trump gestures after arriving at John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport in Johnstown after arriving in Pennsylvania to take part in the 17th annual September 11 observance at the Flight 93 National Memorial in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, U.S., September 11, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
OAKLAND, CA - SEPTEMBER 09: Honduran father Juan and his six-year-old son Anthony embrace while attending Sunday Mass on September 9, 2018 in Oakland, California. They fled their country, leaving many family members behind, and crossed the U.S. border in April at a lawful port of entry in Brownsville, Texas seeking asylum. They were soon separated and spent the next 85 days apart in detention. Juan was sent to Tulsa, Oklahoma, while his son was sent to a detention shelter New York. They were one of almost 2,600 families separated due to the Trump administration's 'zero tolerance' immigration policy. Juan said it took six weeks from the time of separation until he was able to make a phone call to his son. They were finally reunited in July and are now living in Oakland as their asylum cases are adjudicated. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Miss New York Nia Imani Franklin has the tiara put on her by outgoing Miss America Cara Mund on stage in Atlantic City, New Jersey, U.S., September 9, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A Saudi man with his body covered with bees poses for a picture in Tabuk, Saudi Arabia September 11, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Al Hwaity TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Latonya Willis of Wilmington, holds her 17 month-old son Ayden with her other children Kaiden and Dailyn in tow before heading out on a evacuation bus ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Florence in Wilmington, North Carolina, U.S. September 12, 2018. REUTERS/Randall Hill TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 08: Candles form a memorial to late rapper Mac Miller at the corner of Fairfax and Melrose Avenues on September 8, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. Miller died of a suspected overdose on Friday, September 7. (Photo by Katharine Lotze/Getty Images)
A house is destroyed in Lawrence, Mass., Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018 after a series of gas explosions in the area. First-responders continued to fight at least 50 fires in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover Mass., Thursday. The fires are being attributed to problems with the natural gas system and officials are urging residents to leave their homes if they smell gas. (Carl Russo/The Eagle-Tribune via AP)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 11: The 'Tribute in Light' memorial lights up lower Manhattan near One World Trade Center on September 11, 2018 in New York City. The tribute at the site of the World Trade Center towers has been an annual event in New York since March 11, 2002. Throughout the country services are being held to remember the 2,977 people who were killed in New York, the Pentagon and rural Pennsylvania in the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
A man waits at a medical clinic in the village of Wau Shilluk near the town of Malakal, in the Upper Nile state of South Sudan, September 8, 2018. REUTERS/Baz Ratner SEARCH "MALAKAL BAZ" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A view of Hurricane Florence is shown churning in the Atlantic Ocean in a west, north-westerly direction heading for the eastern coastline of the United States, taken by cameras outside the International Space Station, September 12, 2018. NASA/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 08: Naomi Osaka of Japan after winning the Women's Singles finals match alongside runner up Serena Williams of the United States on Day Thirteen of the 2018 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 8, 2018 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is kissed by his girlfriend Sandra Lee after voting in the New York Democratic primary election at the Presbyterian Church in Mt. Cisco, New York, U.S., September 13, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Segar TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A U.S. HC-C130J approaches the edge of hurricane Florence after a two and a half hour flight from Savanah Air National Guard Base, Savanah, Georgia, U.S. Airport, in this September 12, 2018 handout photo. Technical Sgt. Chris Hibben/U.S. Air Force/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Cameramen film as a Palestinian demonstrator reacts to tear gas fired by Israeli troops during a protest calling for lifting the Israeli blockade on Gaza, on a beach near the maritime border with Israel, in the northern Gaza Strip September 10, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 11: Retired New York City firefighter Bruce Stanley holds a portrait of his late friend Liam Smith Jr., a New York City firefighter who died in the 9/11 attacks, during a commemoration ceremony for the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks at the National September 11 Memorial, September 11, 2018 in New York City. In New York City and throughout the United States, the country is marking the 17th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
TUGUEGARAO, PHILIPPINES - SEPTEMBER 14: Rain covers the city lying on the path of Typhoon Mangkhut as residents prepare its approach on September 14, 2018 in Tuguegarao city, northern Philippines. Super typhoon Mangkhut is expected to land Saturday and officials have ordered evacuations and school closures with millions of people in the storms predicted path. The category five storm would be the strongest to hit this year, with wind gusts already at 270 kilometres an hour. (Photo by Jes Aznar/Getty Images)
Retired sprinter Usain Bolt poses as he enjoys zero gravity conditions during a flight in a specially modified plane above Reims, France, September 12, 2018. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
U.S. Army Reserve Sgt. Edwin morales kneels as he honors his cousin Ruben Correa during ceremonies marking the 17th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, at the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York, U.S., September 11, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A man rides his bike around the waterfront docks before Hurricane Florence comes ashore in Washington, North Carolina, U.S., September 13, 2018. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
ATLANTIC BEACH, NC - SEPTEMBER 13: Waves crash around the Oceanana Pier as the outer edges of Hurricane Florence being to affect the coast September 13, 2018 in Atlantic Beach, United States. Coastal cities in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virgnian are under evacuation orders as the Category 2 hurricane approaches the United States. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
A tourist takes a picture in the Ice Cave at the Rhone Glacier in Furka, Switzerland, September 13, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
The Villarrica Volcano is seen at night from Pucon town, Chile September 13, 2018. Picture taken September 13, 2018. REUTERS/Crisobal Saavedra Escobar TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A customer stands in Vienna's smallest bookstore "Buchhandlung Posch", Austria, September 12, 2018. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Children react after competing in a pedal car race as motoring enthusiasts attend the Goodwood Revival, a three day classic car racing festival celebrating the mid-twentieth century heyday of the sport, at Goodwood in southern Britain, September 9, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
CUPERTINO, CA - SEPTEMBER 12: Apple chief design officer Jony Ive (L) and Apple CEO Tim Cook inspect the new iPhone XR during an Apple special event at the Steve Jobs Theatre on September 12, 2018 in Cupertino, California. Apple released three new versions of the iPhone and an update Apple Watch. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
GAZA CITY, GAZA - SEPTEMBER 10: Palestinians gathering to show their support to a 20-vessel flotilla that set out Monday from the northern Gaza Strip in hopes of breaking the decade-long blockade of the coastal enclave, throws rocks with slingshots in response to Israeli forces' intervention as Israeli navy intervene to the flotilla and Palestinians with gunfire and tear gas canisters on September 10, 2018 in Gaza City, Gaza. (Photo by Ali Jadallah/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Attendees listen as former U.S. President Barack Obama, not pictured, speaks during a campaign rally for Richard Cordray, Democratic nominee for governor of Ohio, in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S., on Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. Cordray is an Obama appointee who was director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the federal watchdog agency now being overhauled by Trump's administration. Photographer: Allison Farrand/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A family enjoys the surf ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Florence in Oak Island, North Carolina, U.S. September 12, 2018. REUTERS/Randall Hill TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Britain's Prince William meets local school children during a visit to the 'Horse to Hyperloop' exhibition at the Ryder Architecture Cooper's Studios, one of the centres that are hosting part of the Great Exhibition of the North, in Gateshead, Britain, September 7, 2018. REUTERS/Scott Heppell
OXON HILL, MD - SEPTEMBER 09: A portion of 'The Awakening' statue is seen submerged by rising waters at National Harbor on Sunday September 09, 2018 in Oxon Hill, MD. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
A boy jumps into the Indian Ocean at the Xamarweyne beach in Mogadishu, Somalia September 14, 2018 REUTERS/Feisal Omar TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A man rides a bike in Palermo, Italy September 14, 2018. REUTERS/Tony Gentile TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
JAMES CITY, NC - SEPTEMBER 14: Volunteers from the Civilian Crisis Response Team help rescue three children from their flooded home September 14, 2018 in James City, United States. Hurricane Florence made landfall in North Carolina as a Category 1 storm and flooding from the heavy rain is forcing hundreds of people to call for emergency rescues in the area around New Bern, North Carolina, which sits at the confluence of the Nueces and Trent rivers. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
A self-driving Volvo electric truck with no cab called Vera is seen during a presentation in Berlin, Germany, September 12, 2018. REUTERS/Emma Thomasson TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A man reacts as people gather near the Morandi bridge to hold a minute of silence in memory of the victims, during a commemoration ceremony one month after the Morandi Bridge collapse that killed 43 people, on September 14, 2018 in Genoa. - A month after Genoa's Morandi Bridge collapse killed 43 people, the port city is tending to its wounds and those left homeless by the disaster are turning a brave face to the future. (Photo by MARCO BERTORELLO / AFP) (Photo credit should read MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP/Getty Images)
Activists sit in a tree house as police attempt to clear the area at the "Hambacher Forst" in Kerpen-Buir near Cologne, Germany, September 13, 2018, where protesters have built a camp with tents and treehouses to stop the clearing of the Hambach forest for a nearby open cast coal mining. REUTERS/Thilo Schmuelgen TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 13: New York Democratic primary candidate for governor Cynthia Nixon makes a concession speech at a Brooklyn restaurant on September 13, 2018 in New York City. In a race where she sought to attract disenfranchised voters and those on the left, the actress and activist was challenging the incumbent governor Andrew Cuomo. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
A boy carries a little sheep from its summer pastures in the mountains down to the valley and through the town of Mittenwald during the traditional "Almabtrieb" in Mittenwald, Germany, September 8, 2018. REUTERS/Andreas Gebert
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Cooper requested additional federal disaster assistance in anticipation of what his office called "historic major damage" across the state.
More than 80,000 people were already without power as the storm began buffeting the coast, and more than 12,000 were in shelters. Another 400 people were in shelters in Virginia, where forecasts were less dire.
Prisoners were affected, too. North Carolina corrections officials said more than 3,000 people were relocated from adult prisons and juvenile centers in the path of Florence, and more than 300 county prisoners were transferred to state facilities.
Officials said some 1.7 million people in the Carolinas and Virginia were warned to evacuate, but it's unclear how many did. The homes of about 10 million were under watches or warnings for the hurricane or tropical storm conditions.
Spanish moss waved in the trees as the winds picked up in Wilmington, and floating docks bounced atop swells at Morehead City. Ocean water flowed between homes and on to streets on the Outer Banks; waves crashed against wooden fishing piers.
Coastal towns in the Carolinas were largely empty, and schools and businesses closed as far south as Georgia.
As of 2 a.m., Florence was centered about 35 miles (55 kilometers) east of Wilmington, North Carolina. Its forward movement increased slightly to 6 mph (9 kph). Hurricane-force winds extended 90 miles (150 kilometers) from its center, and tropical-storm-force winds up to 195 miles (315 kilometers).
A buoy off the North Carolina coast recorded waves nearly 30 feet (9 meters) high as Florence churned toward shore.
Forecasters said conditions will deteriorate as the storm pushes ashore early Friday near the North Carolina-South Carolina line and makes its way slowly inland. Its surge could cover all but a sliver of the Carolina coast under as much as 11 feet (3.4 meters) of ocean water, and days of downpours could unload more than 3 feet (0.9 meters) of rain, touching off severe flooding.
Once a Category 4 hurricane with winds of 140 mph (225 kph), the hurricane was downgraded to a Category 1 on Thursday night.
Major test for the Federal Emergency Management Agency
Forecasters said that given the storm's size and sluggish track, it could cause epic damage akin to what the Houston area saw during Hurricane Harvey just over a year ago, with floodwaters swamping homes and businesses and washing over industrial waste sites and hog-manure ponds.
The hurricane was seen as a major test for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was heavily criticized as slow and unprepared for Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico last year.
As Florence drew near, President Donald Trump tweeted that FEMA and first responders are "supplied and ready," and he disputed the official conclusion that nearly 3,000 people died in Puerto Rico, claiming the figure was a Democratic plot to make him look bad.
Not everyone was taking Florence too seriously: About two dozen locals gathered Thursday night behind the boarded-up windows of The Barbary Coast bar as Florence blew into Wilmington.
"We'll operate without power; we have candles. And you don't need power to sling booze," said owner Eli Ellsworth.
Others were at home hoping for the best.
"This is our only home. We have two boats and all our worldly possessions," said Susan Patchkofsky, who refused her family's pleas to evacuate and stayed at Emerald Isle with her husband. "We have a safe basement and generator that comes on automatically. We chose to hunker down."