The water "is as high as it's ever been, and waves are breaking on my point, which is normally grass", said Copeland, a freelance photographer for The Associated Press.
In Jacksonville, next to Camp Lejeune, the Triangle Motor Inn was coming apart early Friday.
Cinder blocks that were part of the structure were crumbling in some places, and portions of the roof were missing.
In some low-lying parts of the county, floodwaters blocked a few roadways, including Canal Drive in Carolina Beach and Government Center Drive in Wilmington.
The storm's maximum sustained winds held at about 145kph.
A gust of 105 miles per hour was recorded at Wilmington airport, surpassing the power of Hurricane Fran two decades ago.
A mother and her infant were killed when a tree fell on their home Friday, and another woman died from a heart attack when emergency crews were unable to get to her home because of downed trees.
The NHC said the threat of tornadoes was increasing as Florence neared shore and South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster said the heavy rain could trigger landslides in the west of his state.
A surge is likely along portions of the SC coast.
More than 12,000 were in shelters in North Carolina. Some areas of SC could see rainfall totals of up to 15 inches, forecasters said. EMS services could not get to the woman due to the storm, marking the third Florence-related death since the storm began hitting the North Carolina coastline. More than 1 million people are under mandatory and voluntary evacuation orders, with more than 10 million people under storm watches or warnings.
Meteorologist Ryan Maue of weathermodels.com said Florence could dump a staggering 18 trillion gallons of rain over a week on North Carolina, South Carolinas, Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Maryland.
Florence's top sustained winds remain at 70 miles per hour (110 kph) as it crawls west at just 3 miles per hour (6 kph).
"I might play a tiny bit, but the reason we're all here is because a hurricane may destroy our homes, and we're waiting to see what happens with that", Liebelt said.
Rainfall will be one of the most destructive elements of hurricane Florence, with heavy rain triggering unsafe flash floods and potential landslides.
Latest predictions show the storm slowing to a near standstill as it pummels the coast with "copious amounts of rain" from Thursday night to Saturday.
"This is our only home". At least 1 million people were ordered to evacuate along the coast. "We chose to hunker down".
- A neon sign was no match for Hurricane strength winds.
The hurricane came ashore early Friday, pounding the state with torrential rain and high winds.
Intensity: Florence came ashore with top winds of 145 kph, 178kph threshold for a "major" hurricane but still extremely risky. Rainfalls up to 40 inches (102 centimeters) in some places are expected in a region ranging from coastal North Carolina to northeastern SC, with flash flooding likely, according to the NHC.
About 800 flights in the region were canceled ahead of the storm, CNN reported.