Water kills more people in hurricanes than wind, and he said it will still be an extremely unsafe storm for rain and storm surge.
Tens of thousands of people are already without power. Pieces of ripped-apart buildings flew through the air.
Visit our sister site Live Science for the latest Hurricane Florence forecast. Forecasters said catastrophic freshwater flooding is expected well inland over the next few days as Florence crawls across the Carolinas.
At 7 a.m., the center of the eye was located about 5 miles (10 kilometers) east of Wilmington, moving west at 6 mph.
Florence is moving toward the northwest near 6 miles per hour.
Tropical storm-force winds extended 195 miles from Florence's centre, and hurricane-force winds reached out 70 miles. "So will the power lines, as the trees fall down". "Don't plan to leave once the winds and rains start". But authorities warned Florence has an enormous wind field that has been growing larger, raising the risk of the ocean surging on to land and making Florence extremely risky.
Marge Brown, 65, says goodbye to her father, George Brown, 90, before he is evacuated from a healthcare home in Morehead City, N.C., September 12, 2018, as Hurricane Florence approaches the east coast.
In an 11:00 pm Eastern Time advisory, the NHC said: "While Florence has weakened below major hurricane intensity, the wind field of the hurricane continues to grow in size". He added later, "Most of the fatalities in these tropical systems is water".
Although the storm is approaching the US coastline as a Category 2 hurricane after weakening from a Category 4 storm, that doesn't mean the storm will be gentle.
"There is still time, but not a lot of time", said Derrec Becker of the South Carolina Department of Emergency Management.
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Nearly 160,000 customers already were without power in North Carolina Thursday evening - and that number is likely to rise. Heavy rains were forecast to extend into the Appalachian Mountains, affecting parts of Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia. 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.
It's unclear exactly how many people fled, but more than 1.7 million people in the Carolinas and Virginia were warned to clear out.
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. If the track shifts farther south, impacts could spread into southeast Georgia.
"This is no ordinary storm, and people could be without power for a very long time - not days but weeks", a president of one energy company in North Carolina said on Wednesday.
Florence's maximum sustained winds were clocked on Thursday at 110 miles per hour (175 kph) after it was downgraded to a Category 2 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, according to the NHC.
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 past year.
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.
Others were at home hoping for the best. "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 love you all, we want you safe".