He said the federal government is "absolutely, totally prepared" for Florence.
Emerald Isle is about 84 miles (135 kilometers) north of Wilmington.
Life-threatening storm surge is being reported along the coast of the Carolinas.
The National Hurricane Center says that despite the gradual lowering in wind strength, the storm remains extremely unsafe because of the high volume of rainfall and storm surges predicted.
It's been an especially active start to the Atlantic hurricane season, as parts of North and SC are now bracing for impact from a major Category 3 Storm.
Hurricane Florence has weakened to a Category 2 storm as it approaches landfall in the USA - but it is very slow moving and could linger the coastline bringing catastrophic flooding and heavy losses to insurers.
As of Thursday morning, forecast models showed the storm bringing more rain than originally thought - officials now predict 35 inches of rain will fall in a two-day period as Florence, now a Category 2 storm with 110 miles per hour sustained winds, will stall over Wilmington after making landfall early Friday morning.
As Florence drew near, President Donald Trump tweeted that FEMA and first responders are "supplied and ready", and he disputed the official conclusion that almost 3,000 people died in Puerto Rico, claiming the figure was a Democratic plot to make him look bad. Hurricane Florence's path is hitting many counties where fewer than 5% of people have flood insurance.
About 10 million people could be affected by the storm and more than 1 million were ordered to evacuate the coasts of the Carolinas and Virginia, jamming westbound roads and highways for miles.
Warm air rises into the storm.
Airlines have cancelled more than 1,500 flights, and coastal towns across the Carolinas are largely empty after 1.7 million people in three states were told to clear out. "Whether you have a house or not, when the storm comes it will bring everyone together".
Another Wilmington resident said she does not want to leave because she is afraid to see what she would be coming back to.
As of 8 a.m. ET, the National Hurricane Center said Florence was centered about 170 miles east-southeast of Wilmington, North Carolina, and about 220 miles east of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
Florence's hurricane force winds now extends 80 miles from the center, while the tropical storm force winds reaches almost 200 miles, according to the National Hurricane Center.
The storm rotates due to the spin of the earth and energy from the warm ocean increases wind speeds as it builds. Restoring power to all customers could take weeks, it said. Shelters in the city were filling and some people were being bused inland to Raleigh.
Air Force General Terrence J O'Shaughnessy, head of US Command, said search and rescue is a top priority but that the magnitude of the storm may exceed the ability of rescuers.