RODANTHE, N.C. - Arthur strengthened to a hurricane early Thursday and threatened to give North Carolina a glancing blow on Independence Day, prompting thousands of vacationers and residents to leave parts of the state's popular but flood-prone Outer Banks.
Nichole Specht, 27, and Ryan Witman, 28, had pre-loaded their Honda CRV and left Hatteras Island at 3:30 a.m. Thursday, beating the expected traffic jam. The island was under a mandatory evacuation order for visitors and residents, with officials asking an estimated 35,000 people to leave through North Carolina Route 12, the only road on and off Hatteras.
Specht and Witman found the road wide open for their return home to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Specht said her parents left their rental later, at 5 a.m., and also found clear sailing.
"We were just saying we were really, really lucky this year that the weather was so great, and then this," Specht said as she ended a two-week vacation that included scouting sites for the couple's wedding next year.
Forecasters expect Arthur to whip past the Outer Banks - a 200-mile string of narrow barrier islands with about 57,000 permanent residents - on Friday without making landfall but still bringing rain, heavy winds, storm surge and dangerous rip tides.
Before the storm hit, tourism officials had expected 250,000 people to travel to the Outer Banks for the holiday weekend. 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.
The National Hurricane Center predicted Arthur would swipe the North Carolina coast early Friday with winds of up to 85 mph and then be off the coast of New England later in the day, eventually making landfall in Canada's maritime provinces as a tropical storm.
Outer Banks residents and out-of-town visitors who fail to evacuate ahead of the hurricane's expected arrival should prepare for possibly getting stuck for several days without food, water or power, National Hurricane Center forecaster Stacy Stewart said Thursday.
"We want the public to take this system very seriously, go ahead and start their preparations because time is beginning to run out," he said.
Arthur, the first named storm of the Atlantic season, prompted a hurricane warning for much of the North Carolina coast. Tropical storm warnings were in effect for coastal areas in South Carolina and Virginia. On the Outer Banks' Ocracoke Island, accessible only by ferry, a voluntary evacuation was underway. The mandatory evacuation for Hatteras Island residents and visitors began at 5 a.m.
Before sunset Wednesday on Route 12, a long line of cars, trailers and recreational vehicles formed a steady stream of traffic. The road has been sliced apart twice in recent years as storms cut temporary channels from the ocean to the sound. The road is easily blocked by sand and water.
Gary Reinhardt, 63, and his wife Lori, both of Sarasota, Florida, said they planned to leave Rodanthe early Thursday. So were nearly two dozen other family members from California, Nebraska and Michigan.
"I'm worried about the road. It took way too long to get here," Gary Reinhardt said. He noted a delay of more than two hours getting on the island Sunday, with no storm issues. He worried their departure would take twice as long Thursday.
Mike Rabe of Virginia Beach, Virginia, planned to stay in his Outer Banks beach home the entire weekend. He and his wife, Jan, arrived Wednesday and set to work stowing lawn furniture and anything else that could be tossed about by winds. He said he'd spend Thursday helping a friend and longtime resident get his water sports shop and campground ready for bad weather.
"I'm going to help him prepare and then I'm going to ride it out," Rabe, 53, said.
Other areas of the Outer Banks were taking a cautious yet optimistic approach: No evacuations had been ordered for areas north of Hatteras, including the popular town of Kill Devil Hills, which was the site of the Wright brothers' first controlled, powered airplane flights in December 1903.
The holiday weekend was not expected to be a complete loss for the estimated quarter-million visitors vacationing on the Outer Banks. Forecasters said the storm would move through quickly with the worst of the weather near Cape Hatteras about dawn Friday. Then it was expected to clear.
Farther north, the annual Boston Pops Fourth of July concert and fireworks show was moved up a day because of potential heavy rain ahead of Hurricane Arthur. Organizers and public safety officials said the celebration was rescheduled for Thursday, which appeared to be the best of two potential bad weather days.
On Thursday morning, Arthur was about 300 miles (480 kilometers) southwest of Cape Hatteras and moving north around 9 mph (15 kph) with maximum sustained winds of 80 mph (130 kph).