North Carolina emergency officials stepped up preparations Wednesday for possible hurricane conditions as Tropical Storm Arthur moved up the East Coast and threatened a Fourth of July visit.
A tropical storm warning was upgraded to a hurricane warning along much of the North Carolina coast after the National Hurricane Center’s computers nudged the predicted path of Arthur farther to the west.
That would bring the heavy rain and strong winds closer to the Carolinas on the biggest tourist weekend of the year.
A hurricane warning is posted from Surf City, about 30 miles up the coast from Wilmington, to the northern Outer Banks town of Duck.
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A hurricane watch and tropical storm warning are in effect from Charleston to Surf City, and National Hurricane Center meteorologist Lexion Avila said Wednesday evening that any movement of Arthur’s track farther west could bring hurricane-force winds to coastal areas south of Surf City.
Arthur is expected to be a Category 1 hurricane with 85 mph winds as it passes the Outer Banks early Friday.
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory urged residents and visitors to use caution.
“This is no time to be brave and risk your safety,” he said.
With hundreds of thousands of tourists vacationing on the Outer Banks, officials in Dare and Hyde counties wrestled with the decision about possible evacuations.
A mandatory evacuation has been ordered for Hatteras Island on the Outer Banks, affecting the towns of Rodanthe, Waves, Avon, Buxton and Hatteras Village. Nobody will be permitted to enter the island after 6 a.m. Thursday.
A voluntary evacuation began Wednesday afternoon on Ocracoke Island, and McCrory announced that ferry service from Ocracoke to Cedar Island and Swan Quarter will run 24 hours with no tolls. Campgrounds and tourist attractions on the Outer Banks were closed.
Even areas along the South Carolina coast are forecast to get gusty winds, heavy rain squalls and dangerous rip currents Thursday. The worst conditions are forecast for Thursday night and Friday along the Outer Banks.
Emergency management officials in both states said one of their big fears is the presence of many thousands of tourists from parts of the country not visited by tropical storms and dangers such as rip currents.
“Don’t put your ‘stupid hat’ on,” McCrory said during a midday news conference Wednesday in Wilmington. “Stay out of the ocean. Rip tides are dangerous, no matter what your level of swimming expertise is.”
Several people drowned in rip current-related incidents last Independence Day holiday, from Wilmington-area beaches south to the Grand Strand.
The resort towns of Sunset Beach and Topsail Beach issued advisories to residents about being wary of rip currents when entering the surf. A number of towns along the coast postponed Independence Day fireworks displays and parades because of the storm.
At 8 p.m. Wednesday, the center of Tropical Storm Arthur was about 210 miles southeast of Charleston. The storm’s top sustained winds were 70 mph, and it was moving northerly at 7 mph. Avila said Arthur’s track is expected to curve northeast on Thursday.
South Carolina officials are taking a wait-and-see attitude as current forecasts keep the worst conditions offshore. Meteorologists said they expect winds gusting to near 40 mph in the Myrtle Beach area Thursday and slightly stronger winds in the popular Brunswick County beaches just north of the state line.
Brad Dean, president of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, told the Sun News of Myrtle Beach that Arthur likely will have little impact on the Grand Strand’s holiday weekend.
“We anticipate a wet, windy start to the holiday weekend, which may actually drive some business to the indoor amusements in our area, but overall it will be a fun time for visitors and residents,” Dean told the Sun News. “Visitors are still planning to come, and the weekend should be packed with vacationers.”
North Carolina Transportation Secretary Tony Tata said road crews have been placed along the coast, with special attention being paid to the Outer Banks. N.C. 12, which runs up and down the barrier islands, is prone to flooding in tropical weather systems.
“On the Outer Banks, crews are staging 25 pieces of equipment along N.C. 12, to be ready,” he said.