MANTEO, N.C. — Gov. Mike Easley announced Tuesday that he is issuing a state of emergency for North Carolina as residents prepare for Hurricane Isabel.
Easley said weather estimates show that the eastern part of the state may see up to 8 inches of rainfall when Hurricane Isabel hits land sometime early Thursday morning. He urged residents to evacuate low-lying coastal areas.
"Now is the time to prepare," he said. "The course and intensity of this storm may change very quickly."
In addition to declaring a state of emergency, Easley also signed an executive order that will allow trucks to carry heavier loads for longer hours on North Carolina highways. By signing that order, power companies will be allowed to bring in equipment that may be needed to restore power to certain areas.
Easley said the state suspended regular scheduled ferry service to isolated Ocracoke Island and other ferry routes operated only as conditions permitted.
The National Hurricane Center posted a hurricane watch from Little River Inlet, S.C., to Chincoteague, Va., including Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds and a large part of Chesapeake Bay. A watch means an area could face hurricane conditions within 36 hours.
Forecasters said Isabel appeared to be on a course to hit Thursday on the North Carolina coast and move northward through eastern Virginia. Large swells and dangerous surf already were being felt along the coast.
At 5 p.m. Tuesday, the center of the hurricane was located near latitude 27.8 north, longitude 71.4 west or about 570 miles south-southeast of Cape Hatteras.
Isabel was moving northwest near 8 mph and a general motion toward the northwest or north-northwest was expected during the next 24 hours with some increase in forward speed. It is now considered a Category 2 storm. On Sunday, Isabel's wind had hit 160 mph, making it a Category 5 storm.
Isabel's winds weakened during the day to around 105 mph from a peak of 160 mph over the weekend. But forecasters said the hurricane could strengthen when it crosses the warm waters of the Gulf Stream on a projected course that could take it straight into the Outer Banks early Thursday.
Traffic surged off the Outer Banks island chain Tuesday as nearly 100,000 people were urged to evacuate the North Carolina coast before the arrival of Hurricane Isabel, which had weakened but remained a dangerous storm on a track toward land.
Officials in Currituck County have issued a mandatory evacuation order for its portion of the Outer Banks.
Although no evacuation order has been issued for the Currituck mainland, citizens and visitors are being advised to prepare for possible evacuation.
Residents of the Outer Banks, which includes Hatteras Island, were asked to leave, but Dare County spokeswoman Dorothy Toolan said people wouldn't be forced to leave.
Carteret County officials also have ordered a mandatory evacuation of both banks of Emerald Isle, low-lying areas and mobile homes effective 7 a.m. Wednesday. This is not an evacuation of the entire county.
A day earlier, residents of Ocracoke and Bald Head islands were ordered to evacuate.
"We do have some fire departments in municipalities that will visit neighborhoods and encourage people, but we don't have any kind of law enforcement knocking on doors, forcing people to leave," Toolan said.
Thousands of vacationers and residents left Outer Banks on Tuesday but traffic was moving smoothly. With the storm weakening, many residents appeared ready to stay put.
Officials said they were concerned about ocean flooding along NC 12 on Hatteras Island. The road is the only one south of Oregon Inlet.
Thousands of tourists and others abandoned parts of North Carolina's Outer Banks as rough surf pounded the thin, 120-mile-long chain of islands. But some weather-tested residents treated the evacuation orders as just a suggestion.
"It's easier to stay on the island," Margie Brecker said as she and her husband boarded up their Christmas shop in Rodanthe and made plans to hunker down. "That way, we are right here when it's time to clean up, and we're able to help others."
About 110,000 people were urged to evacuate the Outer Banks. And about 6,000 military personnel and their families on or near Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Va., were ordered to leave.
"If it was a 5, I'd be gone. If it was a 4, I'd be gone. But right now it's looking like a 2 or less," said David Kidwell, a 64-year-old retiree who is staying put at his home in Kitty Hawk. "That's just nothing more than a big nor'easter as far as I'm concerned."
National Hurricane Center meteorologist Eric Blake said people should not let their guard down even though the storm was weakening.
"Hurricanes are notorious for gaining strength as they cross the Gulf Stream," he said. Even at a Category 2, "there's still a lot of potential for danger."
After hitting land, Isabel could also spread heavy rain from North Carolina all the way to the New England states.
The last major hurricane to threaten the mid-Atlantic coast was Floyd in 1999. The Category 2 storm, with 110 mph winds, came ashore near Cape Fear, N.C., and continued along the coast into New England, causing 56 deaths and $4.6 billion in damage.
Navy ships manned by 13,000 sailors headed out to sea from Norfolk, Va., and Earle, N.J., to ride out the storm and keep from being battered against their piers. Military aircraft were flown to airfields inland.
In Simpson, N.C., a man preparing for Isabel accidentally burned his home down Monday when a generator he was testing caught fire.
In Atlantic City, N.J., Miss America Pageant officials said they were prepared to postpone Friday's Boardwalk parade and even the pageant itself on Saturday, if necessary.
Religious broadcaster Pat Robertson prayed on his Christian Broadcasting Network, based in Virginia Beach, that Isabel would turn from the coast. He asked God to put a "wall of protection" around Virginia Beach and the East Coast.
"In the name of Jesus, we reach out our hand in faith and we command that storm to cease its forward motion to the north and to turn and to go out into the sea," Robertson prayed on "The 700 Club."