Florence flattened trees, crumbled roads and the assault wasn't anywhere close to being over, with the siege in the Carolinas expected to last all weekend.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said the hurricane was "wreaking havoc" on the coast and could wipe out entire communities as it makes its "violent grind across our state for days".
Storm surges could reach up to 11 feet, which could cause catastrophic flooding. The governor's office said a third person was killed while plugging in a generator.
A mother and her infant were killed when a tree fell on their house in Wilmington, police said.
Hurricane Florence made landfall early Friday on North Carolina's coast, bringing extreme winds and massive storm surges as officials reported dozens of water rescues overnight. It came ashore along a mostly boarded-up, emptied-out stretch of coastline.
But it was clear that this was really about the water, not the wind.
As of 1 p.m. ET, more than a foot of rain had fallen in many towns in southeastern North Carolina.
Florence's forward movement during the day slowed to a near-standstill - sometimes it was going no faster than a human can walk - and that enabled it to pile on the rain.
Two women who were riding out the storm dance to the music outside the Barbary Coast bar in downtown Wilmington, N.C., as Hurricane Florence threatens the coast, September 13, 2018. Another one of the bears ended up in the middle of the street in the background.
A day after Florence blew ashore in North Carolina with 90 miles per hour winds, more than 2 feet of rain had fallen in places, and the drenching went on and on, with forecasters saying there could be an additional 1½ feet by the end of the weekend.
Hurricane Florence could make landfall as a major hurricane
Tropical storm conditions are possible within the tropical storm watch area, also beginning late this morning. Helene had maximum sustained winds of 70 miles per hour and was moving north-northeast at 22 miles per hour .
Preparing for the worst, about 9,700 National Guard troops and civilians were deployed with high-water vehicles, helicopters and boats that could be used to pluck people from the floodwaters.
Authorities warned, too, of the threat of mudslides and the risk of environmental havoc from floodwaters washing over industrial waste sites and hog farms.
Florence was seen as a major test for FEMA, which was heavily criticized as slow and unprepared past year for Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, which was blamed for almost 3,000 deaths.
Hurricane Florence was only 10 miles east of Wilmington, N.C., as it approached landfall early Friday morning, according to the National Hurricane Center.
The Miami-based center had said earlier Friday Florence's arrival would come with "catastrophic" fresh water flooding over portions of the Carolinas.
North Carolina alone is forecast to get 9.6 trillion gallons (36 trillion liters), enough to cover the Tar Heel state to a depth of about 10 inches (25 centimeters).
Stream gauges across the region showed water levels steadily rising, with forecasts calling for rivers to crest Sunday and Monday at or near record levels.
Its top sustained winds have dropped to 70 miles per hour, and it's at a near standstill, moving west at just 3 miles per hour.
A Tropical Storm Warning is in effect for...
A friend later tweeted that the woman and her family had been rescued.
"It's a real interesting piece of nature to have the eye of the storm be right in the midst of all the chaos we saw, and now we've got this break", Flock said. "We got thrown into mailboxes, houses, trees", said Holt, who had stayed at home because of a doctor's appointment that was later canceled.
Florence's circulation was pushing water ashore, especially north of its eye, in coastal or riverside towns like New Bern and Belhaven, turning land to lakes.