RALEIGH, N.C. The core of Hurricane Arthur is expected to cross over North Carolina's coast and Outer Banks on Thursday night as a strong Category 2 storm, with wind speeds up to 100 mph.
Arthur's expected path has shifted westward and forecasters have upped their predictions of its strength in the hours of its approach.
The Outer Banks evacuation effort was drawing to a close Thursday with the shutdown of Pamlico Sound ferries, though North Carolina Highway 12 remained open to Hatteras Island. Business owners on Hatteras and Ocracoke islands fear Arthur will be the latest and worst of the recent years' setbacks.
By 6 p.m. the storm was hours away from Wilmington, which it was expected to narrowly miss at 8 p.m. Its arms were so huge that they extended nearly to Asheville and far into Virginia, although its impact will be principally seen in eastern North Carolina.
A military Hurricane Hunter aircraft clocked the storm's winds at a sustained 90 mph on Thursday afternoon, and forecasters expected it to strengthen.
Coastal communities along the entire coast were under a hurricane warning for Thursday and the first part of Friday. Ocracoke Island, Aurora, Pamlico Beach and Belhaven were under voluntary evacuation orders, and authorities ordered a mandatory evacuation of Hatteras Island. Richland Township in Beaufort County also was in mandatory evacuation Thursday afternoon.
Arthur could bring beach-eroding waves, flooding, isolated tornadoes and dangerous rip currents. By 6:30 p.m. its early winds had knocked out power to some 7,300 people in North Carolina.
On Ocracoke, with its voluntary evacuation, people were emptying stores, but locals seemed unfazed by the forecast.
"It's very, very busy," said Tommy Hutcherson, whose family owns the Ocracoke Variety Store. "There's a lot of people still on the island."
In fact, he said, some residents of the island were worried by the number of visitors who planned to ride out the storm on Ocracoke, perhaps encouraged by the evacuation's voluntary nature.
Ferries transported about 4,300 people off the island on Wednesday and Thursday, although some may have returned. The island's summertime population is close to 10,000.
Hyde County's emergency management director, Justin Gibbs, had recommended a mandatory evacuation, but county commissioners declined, he said.
The weather will hit hardest overnight Thursday, but forecasters say Arthur will leave a salvageable Fourth of July weekend for hundreds of thousands of beach-bound visitors.
Still, the question is whether those guests will be able to get to the beach when the weather clears. For visitors to Ocracoke and Hatteras, that may depend on whether N.C. 12 is again closed by severe weather.
"Happening in early July, at the heart of the season, that could be devastating economically," said Scott Leggat, vice president of Seaside Vacations and a longtime Hatteras resident. He was posted up at his office in Kitty Hawk, worried that he'd be cut off if he stayed home in Rodanthe.
Carol Dawson, owner of two motels and a store on Hatteras, had to ask guests from nearly 70 of her units to leave on Thursday morning. All of them want to come back so she'll be watching the recovery efforts closely.
"We basically lost the whole weekend," Dawson said, tallying the potential damage to her businesses at $40,000, depending on the storm's effects.
She says the state and federal governments have been too lax in caring for island roads and beaches, leaving the Outer Banks vulnerable to heavy economic damage from hurricanes Irene and Sandy, and the closure of Bonner Bridge last year. She estimates at least 30 Hatteras Island businesses, many with long tenures, have closed in the last few years.