"Hurricane Florence is powerful, slow and relentless", he said.
Travel on the state's roads has grown "extremely hazardous", said Jim Trogdon, the North Carolina transportation secretary, who warned in a late-morning briefing that a 500- to 1,000-year "flood event is anticipated".
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. If it follows that track, the storm could hit Maryland from the south and west early next week - with the strongest impact in the western counties.
Forecasters said conditions will only get more lethal as the storm smashes ashore early Friday near the North Carolina-South Carolina line and crawls slowly inland.
Folks in Charleston, South Carolina, who have chosen not to evacuate, are preparing for a nasty storm that could make landfall right in their backyard.
"WE ARE COMING TO GET YOU", New Bern city officials said on Twitter.
Wind gusts of up to 100 miles per hour were reported at Cape Fear Community College in Wilmington, the hurricane center said.
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"This storm will bring destruction", North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper said. It's expected to move slowly over eastern SC on Friday night through Saturday night.
New Bern, home to approximately 30,000 people, sits about 37 miles northeast of Jacksonville, North Carolina, on the banks of the Neuse River.
The worst of the storm's fury had yet to reach coastal SC, where emergency managers said it was not too late for people to get out.
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). "Trees are blowing down in the wind".
"The National Hurricane Center said Florence is moving very slowly to the west at only 6 miles an hour, then is expected to turn to the southwest, increasing the threat for historic storm surge and catastrophic flooding to coastline areas and inland cities in North Carolina and SC".
Thousands of people have taken temporary shelter in converted schools and community centers, while those who have ignored orders have been warned that rescuers will not be able to reach them at the height of the storm.
With many employees at risk, Novartis said it has temporarily stopped pharmaceutical production at their Wilson, North Carolina site. Almost 14 million people are under a flash flood watch, meaning water levels could rise swiftly at any moment.
As of 3 a.m., Florence hadn't moved and was still centered about 35 miles (55 kilometers) east of Wilmington, North Carolina. A storm surge warning is in effect for South Santee River South Carolina to Duck North Carolina.