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Beach communities in North and SC emptied out on Wednesday as Hurricane Florence threatened to unleash pounding surf and potentially deadly flooding as the most powerful storm to make a direct hit on the states in decades.

At 8 a.m. on Wednesday the storm was located about 855 km southeast of Cape Fear, North Carolina.

It diminished from hurricane force as it came ashore, but forecasters said the 350-mile-wide storm's slow progress across North and SC could leave much of the region under water in the coming days.

"If you're uncomfortable, if you had damage during Irma or Matthew, you may want to consider leaving", Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling said.

Emergency workers monitor hurricane progress at the Emergency operations centre in Wilmington, North Carolina.

More than 60 people, including many children, were evacuated from a hotel in Jacksonville, North Carolina, after strong winds caused parts of the roof to collapse. Some of these reactors - including Duke Energy's Brunswick and Harris nuclear plants in North Carolina and Dominion Energy's Surry plant in Virginia - may be directly in the hurricane's path, Reuters reported.

The South Carolina Department of Corrections says some prisoners were moved in a Pee Dee facility ahead of Florence's approach toward the coast. The only exception was Edisto Beach - that and other areas to the north remain under evacuation orders.

Trump declared states of emergency for North and SC and Virginia, opening the way for federal aid.

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The storm is expected to hit the Carolinas hard later this week.

Then, as the high-pressure system steering Florence weakens, the hurricane is expected to hang out inland for days, showering the region with rain much like Hurricane Harvey did to Houston past year.

It said the hurricane was about 520 miles (820km) southeast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, on Wednesday.

The threat of storm surges loom for areas in the path of the storm, meaning life-threatening inundation from rising water moving inland is possible in the next 36 hours.

Atlantic Beach on North Carolina's Outer Banks islands had already received 30 inches of rain, the U.S. Geological Survey said, while more than 25 inches have fallen in the Newport, Morehead City area since Thursday.

To back up that point, Graham cited a sobering statistic: "50 percent of the fatalities in these tropical systems is the storm surge - and that's not just along the coast". Hurricane-force winds extended 80 miles from its centre, and tropical storm force winds up to 195 miles. She said a hurricane has a way of bringing everyone to the same level.

President Donald Trump both touted the government's readiness and urged people to get out of the way. With that much size and strength, even a glancing blow could be devastating - something forecasters stressed as they noted the shift in the predicted track.

"This rainfall would produce catastrophic flash flooding and significant river flooding", the Miami-based National Hurricane Center (NHC) said.