CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — 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 had officials, hotel owners and would-be vacationers as far north as New England carefully watching forecasts.
The Outer Banks will be especially vulnerable, forecasters said. Officials ordered a mandatory evacuation of Hatteras Island starting at 5 a.m. Thursday. Home to the famous Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the island is a narrow spit of land, and the two-lane North Carolina Highway 12 is the only way to the mainland other than ferries to the south. Twice in recent years, storm-driven waves have sliced N.C. 12, rendering it impassable.
A voluntary evacuation was announced earlier for the Outer Banks’ Ocracoke Island, which is accessible only by ferry.
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.
On Wednesday afternoon, Arthur was about 220 miles (355 kilometers) south of Charleston and moving north about 7 mph (11 kph) with maximum sustained winds of 60 mph (95 kph). The National Hurricane Center predicted it would grow to a Category 1 hurricane with sustained winds of at least 74 mph either late Wednesday or sometime Thursday.
The forecast did not call for a landfall in the U.S., but officials and travelers north to New England kept an eye on the storm’s projected path. Many areas warned of upcoming rain, wind and potential rip tides.
The worst of the storm should occur at Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, 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.”
Back on North Carolina’s storm-tested Hatteras Island, one longtime resident said she had stocked up on supplies but was otherwise unfazed by Arthur’s approach.
Even though Dawn Taylor had to put coolers on the top floor of her home in Avon to catch the rain after Hurricane Irene damaged the roof in 2011, she won’t leave her home because of a hurricane. And certainly not this one. Even her 85-year-old father is staying put with her.
And her advice to less experienced tourists? Think twice before riding things out on the island.
“It’s not their environment. They’re not used to it,” she said. “It’s a whole different world out here, a whole different lifestyle.”