Hurricane watch in effect on Carolinas coast

North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley declared a state of emergency, and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford urged Grand Strand residents to consider evacuating their homes Thursday as Tropical Storm Hanna continued heading toward the Carolinas.

The National Hurricane Center said early Thursday evening that Hanna, which was centered at 5 p.m. about 625 miles south-southeast of Wilmington, might not strengthen to hurricane status by the time it reaches the Carolinas coast early Saturday.

But, added National Hurricane Center meteorologist James Franklin, "People are reminded that there is very little difference between a strong tropical storm and a minimal hurricane."

Meanwhile, Carolinas officials are also planning for the possible arrival next Tuesday or Wednesday of Hurricane Ike, a much more powerful tropical system.

Hanna's top sustained winds are forecast to be near 70 mph when it reaches the coast. The landfall site is forecast to be near the Carolinas border, but forecasters say Hanna is a large, disorganized system.

"Rain and winds associated with Hanna will reach the coast well in advance of the center," Franklin said.

Hanna is large enough -- its bands of heavy tropical showers and thunderstorms extending 315 miles north and east of the storm's center -- that some rainfall is expected to reach the Charlotte metro region by Friday afternoon.

"I think points from the Charlotte metro area eastward could see up to a quarter to a half-inch of precipitation," said Bryan McAvoy, of the National Weather Service office in Greer, S.C. "There is still a small chance they could see more."

A hurricane watch is in effect from Currituck Beach, along the Outer Banks, south to near Edisto Beach, S.C., north of Charleston. That means hurricane conditions are possible within 36 hours.

A tropical storm warning is in effect from the North Carolina-Virginia border south to Savannah. Tropical storm winds are 39 to 75 mph. Hurricane winds are 76 mph or stronger. A tropical storm watch also has been issued from the North Carolina-Virginia border northward to the New Jersey coast

Easley declared the state of emergency in North Carolina, saying the order was not only due to Tropical Storm Hanna but also because of the threat next week from Hurricane Ike.

"Since the exact path of Hanna is uncertain, everyone who lives in the coastal counties needs to be ready," Easley said. "If you do not have your emergency supplies kit together and your emergency plan in place, there is no time to wait."

Forecasters say the eastern third of North Carolina could get up to 5 inches of rain and winds strong enough to down power lines and trees. Flooding of low-lying areas also is a threat.

Earlier this week, Easley activated up to 270 members of the National Guard and a dozen of the state's swift water rescue teams.

In South Carolina, Sanford suggested that residents living in low-lying areas or in mobile homes in Georgetown and Horry counties consider evacuating to shelters by Friday afternoon. Sanford's aides said 70 state troopers will be used to monitor traffic along evacuation routes.

Some visitors to the Grand Strand decided to head inland.

"We've seen people boarding up today, and the Coast Guard helicopters flying overhead, so we decided it was time to go," James Collins, a vacationer from Cadillac, Mich., told the Associated Press.

Some people interviewed Thursday said relatively weak Tropical Storm Hanna didn't worry them -- but they are concerned about Hurricane Ike, which had top sustained winds of 145 mph at one point during the day.

"Ike is a very scary storm," said Mike Hughes, spokesman for a North Carolina power company that closely tracks tropical systems in the Atlantic.

Some other impacts of the approaching storm:

North Carolina ports: The ports in Wilmington and Morehead City will be closed at noon Friday.

South Carolina ports: The Port of Charleston will operate only from 7 a.m. to noon Friday.

Outer Banks parks: Authorities began closing campgrounds Thursday afternoon at several locations along the Outer Banks.

South Carolina school closings: Systems across Horry, Georgetown and Charleston counties are closed Friday.

North Carolina school closings: Officials in a number of counties along and near the coast said schools will be closed Friday or will dismiss classes early. That includes the Brunswick, Columbus, New Hanover and Pender county systems. The Robeson County and Sampson County systems will close two hours early.

High school football: Many games across the two states have been pushed ahead 24 hours and are being played tonight. A number of others will be rescheduled for Saturday or Monday. All games involving Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teams are still set for Friday, except for Independence High's game at Madison County, Fla., which was canceled.

The (Raleigh) News & Observer, the (Myrtle Beach) Sun-News, and the Associated Press contributed.

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