Tourists on a North Carolina vacation destination island were ordered to board the ferries and head for the mainland Wednesday and more evacuations could be on the way as powerful Hurricane Earl threatened to sideswipe the East Coast.
Hyde County emergency officials said the evacuation of Ocracoke Island starts at 5 a.m. for about 5,000 visitors. The 800 or so year-round residents don't have to heed it, but Emergency Services Director Lindsey Mooney said officials hope they'll follow tourists on the 2 1/2 hour trip to shore.
"I don't remember the last time there was a mandatory evacuation order for the island," Hyde County Commissioner Kenneth Collier said.
More evacuations along the Eastern Seaboard could follow, depending on the path taken by the storm, which weakened to a Category 3 hurricane early Wednesday as it whipped across the Caribbean with winds of 125 mph.Read more: Earl weakens slightly, still dangerous (Baltimore Sun) Don't Let a Hurricane Ruin Your Vacation (ABC News)
Earl was expected to remain over the open ocean before turning north and running parallel to the East Coast, bringing high winds and heavy rain to North Carolina's Outer Banks by late Thursday or early Friday. From there, forecasters said, it could curve away from the coast somewhat as it makes it way north, perhaps hitting Massachusetts' Cape Cod and the Maine shoreline on Friday night and Saturday.
Forecasters cautioned that it was still too early to tell how close Earl might come to land. But not since Hurricane Bob in 1991 has such a powerful storm had such a large swath of the East Coast in its sights, said Dennis Feltgen, spokesman for the National Hurricane Center.
"A slight shift of that track to the west is going to impact a great deal of real estate with potential hurricane-force winds," Feltgen said.
Even if Earl stays well offshore, it will kick up rough surf and dangerous rip currents up and down the coast through the Labor Day weekend, a prime time for beach vacations, forecasters said. Virginia's governor on Wednesday planned to declare an emergency, a preliminary step needed to muster emergency personnel should Earl hit the state.
The approaching storm troubled many East Coast beach towns that had hoped to capitalize on the BP oil spill and draw visitors who normally vacation on the Gulf Coast.
On Tuesday, gusty winds from Earl's outer fringes whipped palm fronds and whistled through doors in the Turks and Caicos Islands as tied-down boats seesawed on white-crested surf.
Islanders gathered to watch big waves pound a Grand Turk shore as the wind sent sand and salt spray flying.
"We can hear the waves crashing against the reef really seriously," Kirk Graff, owner of the Captain Kirks Flamingo Cove Marina, said by telephone as he watched the darkening skies. "Anybody who hasn't secured their boats by now is going to regret it."
Carl Hanes of Newport News, Va., kept an eye on the weather report as he headed for the beach near his rented vacation home in Avon, N.C. He, his wife and their two teenage children were anticipating Earl might force them to leave on Thursday, a day ahead of schedule.
"We're trying not to let it bother us," Hanes said before enjoying the calm surf.
In Rehoboth Beach, Del., Judy Rice said she has no plans to leave the vacation home where she has spent most of the summer. In fact, the Oak Hill, Va., resident plans to walk around town in the rain if it comes.
"I kind of enjoy it actually. You know, it's battling the elements," Rice said. "I have seen the rain go sideways, and, yeah, it can be scary, but I have an old house here in Rehoboth, so it's probably more important that I am here during a storm than anywhere."
In the Florida Panhandle, which has struggled all summer to coax back tourists scared away by the Gulf oil spill, bookings were up 12 percent over last year at the Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort. The resort is nowhere near Earl's projected path, and spokeswoman Laurie Hobbs said she suspects the increase in reservations was partly because of a discount the hotel is offering and partly because of the hurricane.
"Weather drives business," she said. "They go to where the weather is best."
If Earl brings rain farther inland, it could affect the U.S. Open tennis tournament, being played now through Sept. 12 in New York City.
"We're keeping our eye on it very closely," said United States Tennis Association spokesman Chris Widmaier.
Associated Press Writers Mike Baker and Emery Dalesio in Raleigh; Kathleen Miller in Washington; David Sharp in Portland, Maine; Suzette Laboy in Miami; Bob Lewis in Bristol, Va.; Vivian Tyson in Providenciales, Turks and Caicos; Ben Fox in Fajardo, Puerto Rico; Anika Kentish in St. John's, Antigua; Judy Fitzpatrick in Philipsburg, St. Maarten; and David McFadden, Mike Melia and Danica Coto in San Juan contributed to this report.