NORTH CAROLINA -- Hurricane Florence has been downgraded to a Category 2 storm but it is still considered an extremely dangerous and life-threatening storm.
As of 11 p.m., the storm was centered 280 miles (455 kilometers) east southeast of Wilmington, North Carolina, and was moving northwest at 17 mph (28 kph). Its maximum sustained winds have dropped slightly to 110 mph (175 kph).
But the National Hurricane Center said Wednesday evening that the storm is expected to bring life-threatening storm surge and rainfall to the Carolinas as it approaches the coast Thursday and Friday.
Residents flee as storm gets closer
As the hurricane closed in, some residents wondered whether to ride it out. Allison Jones said she's not taking any chances.
Her home in Hillsborough, North Carolina, is at risk for flooding, and her family and nearby relatives will ride out the storm in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The five adults, six children, and a dog and a cat, will leave their homes Wednesday.
The adults packed irreplaceable items such as photo albums and heirlooms while the children stuffed their favorite toys, blankets and books in their bags.
"Honestly, it tears me up thinking that what if in the end of this, this is all we have left," Jones said. "I wish I had more time to sort through and grab more of the sentimental items."
'My home is all my wife and I have'
Tim Terman's house in Southport, North Carolina, is about 20 feet above sea level. He's planning to stay put -- for now.
"Once you leave, hard to get back in to check on damage," he said. "My home is all my wife and I have, materially speaking, a lifetime of stuff."
Residents along the coast boarded up their homes, lined up at gas stations and emptied supermarket shelves as they prepared for Florence's arrival.
On Ocracoke Island along North Carolina's Outer Banks, Kelley Shinn and her partner packed their Jeep with clothes and other things and took a ferry to the mainland. From there, they headed to her father's home in Ohio.
"It's surreal to think we may have nothing to go home to," she said. "We've never left for a storm before. But a storm surge of 20 feet could easily wipe this island out."
Mayor Joe Benson of Carolina Beach, a small town near Wilmington with a permanent population of about 6,300, said he believes half of the community's residents have stayed on the island.
States of emergency declared in several states
The Federal Emergency Management Agency warned that storm surge watches and warnings are active for the entire North Carolina coast and parts of South Carolina. It urged residents to heed evacuation orders.
Officials in several states have declared states of emergency, including Virginia and Maryland, where coastal areas are still recovering from summer storms.
"We are hoping for the best and preparing for the worst," Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said, noting that Florence could cause catastrophic flooding in his state.
Traffic redirected away from the coast
In South Carolina, traffic in all lanes of Interstate 26 from Charleston to Columbia has been directed away from the coast, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said.
Traffic also has been directed away from the coast on parts of US 501, McMaster said. Some schools in inland counties will be used as shelters.
Families with pets were urged to board them with veterinarians, kennels or other facilities in nonvulnerable areas.
"Pets are not allowed inside Red Cross evacuation shelters," McMaster said.
In Virginia, mandatory evacuations began Tuesday for about 245,000 residents in a portion of the Eastern Shore area.