Junia MacDaniel just wants to get home to her Chihuahuas.

All 14 of them are back in the double-wide trailer she shares with her husband in New Bern, North Carolina.

The MacDaniels are seeking shelter from Hurricane Florence, and they decided it was best to leave their little dogs behind.

They were among 12,000 North Carolinians staying in shelters after being displaced by the slow-moving storm that is expected to bring powerful storm surges and dozens of centimeters of rain to the eastern part of the state.

"This has been a really large evacuation and sheltering operation, probably the largest we've done, so that has not been an easy lift. I think it’s working", said Keith Acree of North Carolina's Department of Emergency Management.

Brenda and Ronald Whitmer wait in an evacuation shelter at Conway High School

North Carolina began feeling the effects of Florence's wind and heavy rain yesterday and the storm is expected to make landfall later today.

Avis Miner, 57, brought her friend and five grandchildren to a shelter in Washington, about 100 miles east of Raleigh, after leaving their trailer home in Aurora. She worried that if they stayed home "we’d be blown away".

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In shelters, people crowded on cots, inflatable mattresses and blankets on the floors and in hallways of gymnasiums, clustering in corners to talk and outside to smoke.

More than 200 people had arrived at Wilmingtons Trask Middle School by Wednesday afternoon, along with 20 dogs, nine cats and a bird. More sought safety at another shelter in the city.

"It wasn’t safe", said David Sullivan, a 76-year-old retired tow boat captain who evacuated his downtown Wilmington apartment.

"I just figured come here and be safe".

Debbie Green, director of social services for Pamlico County, said she is always worried about people being too isolated and vulnerable to make it to a shelter and, she said, there are always people that are not willing to leave.

Still, the shelter she is overseeing in Grantsboro, about 210km east of Raleigh, was 81% full by noon yesterday and Ms Green expected that number to swell.

Bob Cavanagh and Linda Moore set up camp at Conway High School 

"People will come in the middle of a storm", she said.

Ms MacDaniel, who has sat out previous storms, said everyone told her that Florence would be different.

"All the other storms we stayed put. But they told us this storm was the doozy", Ms MacDaniel said.

"We have never flooded before but we didn’t really want to take no chances".

Now, she is counting the hours until she can return home to her Chihuahuas.

"When it clears up just a little bit, momma’s going home ...I just miss my dogs".