RODANTHE, N.C. – As one of the year’s busiest travel weekends approaches, so does another visitor: Tropical Storm Arthur, expected to grow into a hurricane by the Fourth of July and hit most harshly at North Carolina’s Outer Banks, a popular getaway spot of thin barrier islands along the shore.
The first named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season prompted a hurricane warning for a wide swath of the North Carolina coast and spurred authorities to order a mandatory evacuation for visitors to the Outer Banks’ Hatteras Island as of 5 a.m. Thursday. Residents also were advised to leave the island. A voluntary evacuation was announced for the Outer Banks’ Ocracoke Island, accessible only by ferry.
Officials, hotel owners and would-be vacationers as far north as New England were also carefully watching forecasts. The storm was enough of a concern that officials in Boston decided to move the annual Boston Pops July 4th concert and fireworks show up by a day because of potential heavy rain Friday night. And rip tides were a threat as far north as New Jersey.
The Outer Banks will be especially vulnerable, forecasters said. As word of the mandatory evacuation on Hatteras Island spread, a steady stream of cars, trailers and recreational vehicles began rolling north on North Carolina Highway 12, a two-lane road that is the only way to the mainland other than ferries to the south. Home to the famous Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the island is just a narrow spit of land. Twice in recent years, storm-driven waves have sliced N.C. 12, rendering it impassable.
One of the visitors who planned to leave Thursday was Gary Reinhardt, 63, of Sarasota, Florida.
“I’m worried about the road. It took way too long to get here,” he said, a reference to the two-and-a-half hours it took him and his wife, Lori Reinhardt, to get onto the island last Sunday in normal summertime traffic, when no storms were in sight.
The Reinhardts said they were vacationing with 22 family members from California, Nebraska and Michigan. All planned to leave Thursday. The couple hoped to salvage their vacation somewhat with an overnight stay Thursday in Savannah, Georgia, if they could find lodging that would accept their two dogs.
Other areas of the Outer Banks were taking a cautious, but still-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.
Tourism officials expect about 250,000 people to visit the Outer Banks and stay in hotels and rental homes for the long holiday weekend. “We want everybody to be safe and prepared, but we are not overly concerned at this point,” said Lee Nettles, the executive director the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau. He noted that forecasters were predicting the storm would move fast and be less severe than others in locals’ memories.
Stores saw runs on generators, lanterns and flashlights, but even some workers weren’t yet concerned.
“I’ve been through Irene. I went through Isabelle,” said Bill Motley, who works at Ace Hardware in Nags Head has lived on the Outer Banks for 13 years. “I’m not even worried about this one. I’m more worried about my tomato plants. With the wind coming, if we get a 50-mph gust, it will knock over my tomato plants.”
Nancy Janitz, 60, of Jacksonville, North Carolina, said she was ready, thanks to technology.
“I have my NOAA radio, and I keep tabs on Twitter and Facebook for updates,” she said. “I’m as prepared as I can possibly be.”
Still, Gov. Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency for 25 coastal and adjoining counties and advised residents and visitors alike to let caution be their guide.
“Don’t put your stupid hat on,” he said, as he urged surfers and swimmers not to get in the water regardless of how good the waves might be.
“Our major goal is to ensure that no lives are lost during this upcoming storm,” including those of emergency workers, McCrory said.
The forecast did not call for a landfall in the U.S., but officials and travellers north to New England kept an eye on the storm’s projected path. Many areas warned of upcoming rain, wind and potential rip tides.
In Boston, officials said the July 4th Boston Pops concert was being rescheduled to Thursday, what appears to be the best of two potential bad weather days — although it could also be cancelled on that day if the weather is bad enough, said State Police Col. Timothy Alben.
The performance takes place in the Hatch Shell along the Charles River Esplanade. Fireworks are set off from barges on the river. Thousands of people usually attend.
Arthur is expected to pass well east of New England over the weekend.
Early Thursday, the storm was about 140 miles (230 kilometres) south-southeast of Charleston, South Carolina, and about 365 miles (585 kilometres) southwest of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. It was moving north about 8 mph (13 kph) with maximum sustained winds of 70 mph (110 kph). The National Hurricane Center predicted it would grow to a Category 1 hurricane with sustained winds of at least 74 mph sometime Thursday.
The worst of the storm should occur at Cape Hatteras about dawn Friday, with 3 to 5 inches of rain and sustained winds up to 85 mph, said Tony Saavedra, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service. But forecasters said that by later Friday, the effects of Arthur would be past the Outer Banks, with the rest of the weekend salvaged.
The Hurricane Center predicted the storm would be off the coast of New England later in the day and eventually make landfall in Canada’s maritime provinces as a tropical storm.
In the Myrtle Beach area, the heart of South Carolina’s $18 billion tourism industry, Arthur was expected to move in by Thursday night, spinning wind gusts from 40 to 50 mph toward the high-rise hotels and condominiums lining the oceanfront.
Farther south, in Hilton Head Island on the state’s southern tip, most were confident would pass well out at sea.
“It will be a sold-out weekend,” said Charlie Clark, a spokeswoman for the local Chamber of Commerce. “… We’re not getting calls from visitors asking what’s up with this storm.”
Associated Press writers Martha Waggoner in Raleigh, North Carolina; Matt Small in Washington; and Tony Winton in Miami contributed to this report.