NORFOLK, Va. — Arthur, poised to become a Category 2 hurricane, is beginning its assault on North Carolina's barrier islands.
The big question is how much beach erosion, downed power lines and wrecked holiday weekends will be left in its wake.
"I plan to sit on the beach as long as the sun is here," then head out for a seafood dinner, said Sean Fitzgerald, 44, of Fairfax, Va., who said he saw no reason to disrupt his family's vacation at Kill Devil Hills, N.C., north of Hatteras Island in the Outer Banks.
That area was not under an evacuation order though it was part of the hurricane warning area from Surf City, N.C., about 35 miles northeast of Wilmington, N.C., northward to the North Carolina-Virginia border. Rainfall of 2 to 4 inches is expected with some areas getting as much as 6 inches in a brief time.
Meghan Sawyer of Logan's Ice Cream in Kill Devil Hills worries her customers may not venture out if the weather stays rainy.
"A lot of businesses close down here during the winter. So we do depend on a huge influx of people coming down here for the Fourth of July," said Amory Jones of Kitty Hawk Kites, which offers hang gliding, kiteboarding, parasailing, stand-up paddleboarding and wakeboarding.
A mandatory evacuation of Hatteras Island, the easternmost strip of land in the Outer Banks, began at 5 a.m. ET Thursday, about the time the National Hurricane Center upgraded Tropical Storm Arthur to hurricane status. Now no one is allowed on the island.
"We were just saying we were really, really lucky this year that the weather was so great, and then this," said Nichole Specht, 27, who ended a two-week vacation with her fiance, Ryan Witman, 28. They left Hatteras Island at 3:30 a.m. to beat the traffic.
Forecasters expect Arthur to whip past the Outer Banks — a 200-mile string of narrow barrier islands with about 57,000 permanent residents — by early Friday, grazing the area around Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and bringing rain, heavy winds, storm surge and dangerous rip tides.
Hurricane Arthur is picking up speed — it's now moving at about 15 mph, up from 7 mph when it first formed — and should be off the coast of New England late Friday, making landfall in Canada's maritime provinces as a tropical storm. The National Hurricane Center issued a tropical storm warning Thursday for Nantucket Island and Cape Cod, and its counterpart in Canada issued a tropical storm watch for Nova Scotia, where Arthur is expected to arrive midday Saturday as a tropical storm.
Thursday evening, the storm was about 35 miles south of Cape Fear, the island that juts into the Atlantic south of Wilmington. Hurricane-force winds of 90 mph extended 35 miles from the center, and tropical storm force winds extended 150 mph from the eye; at least one tornado was sighted in the area.
Ferry service to Ocracoke Island, which sits to the west of Hatteras Island about 25 miles from the mouth of the Pamlico River, shut down at 5 p.m. Thursday until after the storm. The island, which has a permanent population of about 950 people, is accessible only by boat.
Coast Guard officials warned boaters to stay off the water in North Carolina and southeastern Virginia until Saturday because any rescue operations also would put Coast Guard crews at risk.
Before the storm, tourism officials had expected 250,000 people to travel to the Outer Banks for the holiday weekend. North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory warned people not to risk their safety by trying to salvage their picnics, barbecues and pre-paid beach cottage vacations.
"Don't put your stupid hat on," McCrory said. But "we anticipate a beautiful holiday weekend once Hurricane Arthur clears out."
The governor has both North Carolina National Guard soldiers and State Highway Patrol troopers on standby if needed to transport supplies and help with traffic.
At Wrightsville Beach east of Wilmington, Warren Lee, Hanover County's emergency management director, had a beach full of vacationers early Thursday afternoon and the strong possibility of rip currents that could carry swimmers out to sea.
"It's a peak time of the year for visitors to be on our coast," he said. "We want to get word out to folks that this is a potentially dangerous storm. Although it's not going to make a direct impact here, we're still going to feel the effects of it."
Outer Banks residents and out-of-town visitors who failed to evacuate ahead of the hurricane's expected arrival should prepare for possibly getting stuck for several days without food, water or power, forecaster Stacy Stewart of the National Hurricane Center said Thursday.
"We want the public to take this system very seriously," he said.