The National Weather Service has issued a hurricane warning for much of the North Carolina coast and people are being urged to leave low-lying areas as Earl slowly lumbers north.
The storm is forecast to stay at sea, passing about 80 miles east of Cape Hatteras late Thursday or early Friday. Even at that distance, Earl, now a Category 3 storm with sustained winds of about 125 mph, will be powerful enough to cause a 1- to 2-foot storm surge along the oceanfront early Friday, and send 70- to 80-mph winds across the Outer Banks.
If the storm turns slightly west, coming closer to shore, conditions could get markedly worse. The hurricane warning extends from Emerald Isle north to the Virginia border, including all of the Outer Banks. A tropical storm warning was issued for the coast from Emerald Isle south of the mouth of the Cape Fear River.
Gov. Bev Perdue declared a state of emergency this afternoon in advance of the storm's arrival. In an executive order, Perdue called on all state and local government agencies to put the state's emergency operations plan into effect. The declaration is the first step in seeking federal money to pay for debris clearing, emergency utility restoration and other damages after a disaster.
Visitors and some residents are leaving Ocracoke and Hatteras islands today to avoid the possibility of becoming stranded. Dare County emergency officials ordered the evacuation of visitors from both islands this morning.
"I'm just about to close," said Katie Oden, who runs the Seagull Motel in Hatteras Village. All her customers had left by 11 a.m., and she was trying to decide whether to go herself.
"The people who live out here, about a third are staying, a third are leaving and a third don't know," Oden said. She was inclined to go, she said, because she has plans to travel with her sister to Portugal in a little over a week and doesn't want to take a chance on missing the trip if N.C. 12 off the island gets washed out by Earl.
"I packed my bags last night, just in case," she said. "But it's hard to decide. Once you leave, it's an ordeal to get back. But if you stay, and the road goes out, you have to stay for the duration."
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