UPDATED: July 3, 2014 9:16 p.m.
RODANTHE, N.C. (WNEW/AP) — Hurricane Arthur gained strength in the Atlantic on Thursday and threatened to strike near the North Carolina coast on Independence Day, prompting thousands of vacationers and residents to leave parts of the state’s popular but flood-prone Outer Banks.
The storm is not expected to have too great of an impact on the Baltimore and Washington area. Forecasters say there is a chance of showers early Friday, but the wet weather should move out of the area in time for evening fireworks.
“The temperatures are going to be so much more comfortable — in the 80’s instead of the 90’s,” WUSA9 meteorologist Erica Grow said.
The biggest threat to festivities will come from heavy winds left in the storm’s wake.
“That wind is going to be be pretty gusty,” Grow added.
Around 9 p.m. Thursday, the National Hurricane Center strengthened Hurricane Arthur to a Category 2 hurricane, with winds close to 100 mph as it nears North Carolina.
Mother Nature’s much stronger wrath will be felt Thursday evening as a separate system pushes through the nation’s capital. The National Weather Service has issued a Severe Thunderstorm Watch for the region through 9 p.m. and a Flash Flood Watch until 2 a.m. Friday, given the potential for rainfall in excess of two inches per hour.
As for the hurricane, Arthur was about 225 miles (365 kilometers) southwest of Cape Hatteras and moving north around 13 mph (20 kph) with maximum sustained winds of 90 mph (150 kph) on Thursday afternoon.
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 an evacuation order, with no traffic allowed in. Officials asked an estimated 35,000 residents and travelers 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 expected Arthur to strengthen to a Category 2 storm with winds of 96 mph or more by the time it passes early Friday over or near the Outer Banks — a 200-mile string of narrow barrier islands with about 57,000 permanent residents.
“We don’t know for sure if the exact center of Arthur is going to pass over land or not. The chances have been increasing for that to occur with the last couple of forecasts. But even if the exact center doesn’t go over you, you will experience impacts tonight. The weather is going downhill in North Carolina, even as we speak,” said Rick Knabb, the director of the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami.
The islands are susceptible to high winds, rough seas and road-clogging sands, prompting an exodus that began Wednesday night.
Among the tourists leaving Hatteras Island were 27-year-old Nichole Specht and 28-year-old Ryan Witman of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The couple started driving at 3:30 a.m. Thursday on North Carolina Highway 12, the only road on and off Hatteras.
“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.
Many island residents, meanwhile, decided to ride out the powerful storm rather than risk losing access to homes connected to the mainland by a highway prone to washouts.
“All the people that I know who live here are staying put,” said Mike Rabe, who planned to stay in his Rodanthe home despite an evacuation order for surrounding Hatteras Island.
The departures of vacationers left things “pretty dead” on Hatteras Island during the normally bustling run-up to the Independence Day weekend, Rabe said. He spent Thursday running errands and helping neighbors prepare their homes for the storm.
Before the storm hit, tourism officials had expected 250,000 people to travel to the Outer Banks for the holiday weekend. Gov. Pat McCrory sought to strike a balance between a stern warning to vacationers and optimism that part of the busy weekend could be salvaged.
“Of course, this holiday weekend, the July 4th weekend, is one of the biggest weekends for coastal tourism in the state, and we anticipate a beautiful weekend after the Tropical Storm Arthur or the Hurricane Arthur is out of North Carolina,” he said.
Arthur, the first named storm of the Atlantic season, prompted a hurricane warning for much of the North Carolina coast. On the Outer Banks’ Ocracoke Island, accessible only by ferry, a voluntary evacuation was underway. Officials said ferry service would end at 5 p.m.
Among those leaving the island was the Unmussig family of Midlothian, Virginia. They cut their vacation two days short when they left Thursday morning in an SUV towing a trailer filled with bicycles and kayaks.
“Our cottage was right on the sound and we didn’t want that back-current surge coming in and flooding us out,” said Donald Unmussig, 50.
“I just didn’t want to risk getting caught there. I have to work Monday morning. I didn’t want to be late,” he added. “We just decided to cut the losses and go home and not have to deal with the problems.”
Tropical storm warnings were also in effect for coastal areas in South Carolina and Virginia and as far north as Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
On the Massachusetts island of Nantucket, no evacuations were planned, but residents who have lived through many a fierce storm said they know better than to totally relax.
“I think that for the most part it’s another storm, but you never know what can happen,” said Rocky Fox, who owns the Chicken Box nightclub on Nantucket. “Being the Fourth of July weekend, things seems to be magnified.”
Fox said Nantucket residents are used to being prepared. “Mother Nature was upset with us this winter, and she may not be through. We’re on an island. You can never tell what it’s going to do. You prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”
By Thursday night, Arthur was centered about 35 miles (55 kilometers) east of Cape Fear, North Carolina, and 140 miles (225 kilometers) southwest of Cape Hatteras and moving north around 15 mph (24 kph) with maximum sustained winds of 90 mph (150 kph).
If Arthur makes landfall in the U.S. on Friday, it would be the first hurricane to do so on July Fourth, according to National Hurricane Center research that goes back to the 1850s.
Among the residents planning to ride out the storm was 79-year-old Tom Murphy, a retired Presbyterian minister who has lived on Hatteras Island since 1986.
“There are some concerns,” he said, particularly about N.C. 12. “But they are not enough to outweigh the desire to be here when it’s all over. The awful part about leaving is the wondering what’s happening at your house down there when you can’t get back.”
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