By Maya Rhodan / Raleigh, N.C.
Updated: September 17, 2018 1:53 PM ET | Originally published: September 13, 2018

As Hurricane Florence hurdled towards the East Coast, its final destination remains uncertain, but North Carolinians who appear to be in the storm’s path were taking few chances.

As it approached dry land, the storm itself appeared to weaken from a catastrophic Category 4 to Category 2, but it is still expected bring soaring storm surges, devastating winds, and torrential rain when it reaches the shores of the Carolinas late Thursday.

“We are on the wrong side of this storm where most of the damage is done,” North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said at a Wednesday briefing on the storm. “Don’t risk your life riding out a monster.”

By that evening, it appeared many in the state had taken heed.

Early this week, North Carolina activated its Emergency Operations Center, where hundreds of state, local and federal officials are stationed in order to prepare for and, soon, respond to the storm.

At least 461 schools across the state were either shut down or closing early on Thursday, according to local TV station WRAL, and many were being used as emergency shelters during the storm. State parks and museums across the region closed, while prisoners in state and county jails were moved out of the storm’s path and given a free phone call to family. Gas stations reported seeing three to four times their normal amount of business, which contributed to temporary shortages in some areas.

Read More: Hurricane Florence Has Experts Worried

Images of boarded up windows and empty beaches flashed across cable news throughout the day. Shoppers piled carts high with bottled water and picked through what was left on barebones shelves in a Northwestern Raleigh Walmart — loaves of dark pumpernickel bread, pimento-cheese flavored Lays chips— as they gathered last minute supplies. One woman, on the hunt for a flashlight, settled for two battery-operated candles.

Duke Energy, which says 1 to 3 million customers could experience power outages because of Florence, moved power restoration crews from other states including Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky and Florida to the region with hopes of addressing any power outages that occur as soon as possible. By the time the storm hits, Duke will have over 20,000 people on the ground to help.

With the storm’s fierce wind and rain threatening many of the state’s cash crops, farmers were working around the clock to harvest as much corn and tobacco as they could. Livestock, including the hogs that make up the state’s massive pork industry, have been moved to higher ground and some animals have “gone into the market to lessen the probability of them being in harm’s way,” said Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler.

“The preparation has been done and now it’s up to mother nature as to what happens,” he said.

Throughout the day on Wednesday evacuees from low-lying and coastal regions, which at risk for both the projected 13-foot storm surge and possible floods, began filtering into Wake County high school gymnasiums that were being used as emergency shelters.

At around noon, Quentia Felton, 39, of Morehead City arrived at Southeast Raleigh High School with her mom, three children, fraternal twin sister and her sister’s two kids. “We’ve never had to evacuate,” said the lifelong North Carolinian. “But this one — phew — it ain’t playing.”

Lemuel Sloan of Jacksonville, says he rode out Hurricane Hazel in 1954 from a flat-bottomed ship just outside of Puerto Rico while he was serving in the Marine Corps. But at 84-years-old, he’s riding out Hurricane Florence at Knightdale High School with his 16-year-old dog, Precious, and other family.

George Brown of Morehead City said he got stuck in six hour traffic as he drove from his home to Knightdale, where he sought shelter. Before Tuesday, he’d been debating whether or not he would stay in the coastal area ahead of the storm, but ultimately decided to flee after receiving an automated emergency call at around 8 a.m. on Tuesday.

“I already had a little hurricane bag ready to go. That was one of the first things I learned when I moved down here,” says Brown.

The staff at the two Wake County evacuation centers TIME visited was made up of county employees who volunteered their time to help out their fellow citizens. The shelters provide food, water, places to bathe and sleep, as well as medical assistance for those who need it. The Knightdale center, as well as one stationed at Southeastern Raleigh Magnet High School, also had a room for pets.

On Wednesday capacity at the two shelters was somewhat limited because school was still in session. But with schools closing on Thursday and Friday, the shelters should have more room to house evacuees.

Mark Ericksen of Frisco blamed his reliance on an oxygen machine on 50-plus years of smoking. When he packed up the 20-pound brown paper bag he left town with, he says, he remembered to bring his nebulizer, toiletries, and a change of clothes, but left behind his blood pressure medication. But, he says, the medical staff at the school was helping him secure more pills.

“I was very apprehensive,” he said. “I’ve been through 12 storms on the Outer Banks and I never left my house and I was thinking this [shelter] was going to be a nightmare. But, I was wrong.”


Correction Sept. 17

The original version of this story misstated the first name of Quentia Felton. It is Quentia, not Quentin.

Write to Maya Rhodan at maya.rhodan@time.com.

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