The North Carolina Department of Transportation suspended ferry operations to Ocracoke Island Saturday morning, effectively isolating the island and nearby Portsmouth Island, where Dennis Joyner said he and about 20 fisherman were left stranded.
The Currituck-Knotts Island route and the Southport-Fort Fisher ferry were suspended later Saturday, and officials said other routes could be affected if conditions continue to deteriorate.
Dare County emergency management officials said water had washed over N.C. Highway 12 near Mirlo Beach and north of Hatteras Village.
"Folks who live in Hatteras are very used to Highway 12, and they’re ready to respond and they take necessary precautions to deal with situations like this," said Jed Dixon, deputy director of the state Department of Transportation's Ferry Division.
Drew Wojtkowski, whose house is one of just four standing between the ocean and the sound at Mirlo Beach, said an S-curve on N.C. 12 is usually among the first places to flood.
"We always keep our eye out on the S-curve, and if that washes out and water rises, then there’s no way to get off," Wojtkowski said.
Still, he and his wife planned to ride out Sandy, which he said couldn't approach what they saw last year with Hurricane Irene.
"This is just the inconvenience of living by the ocean," he said. "We rode out Isabel, which we'll never do again, and last year, when Irene came through, we actually couldn't get here for almost 30 days, the road was totally washed out."
The DOT stationed equipment along N.C. 12 on Hatteras Island, and the agency moved its larger ferries closer to Hatteras on Friday in case emergency evacuations are needed.
"I think we're going to have some issues on Highway 12," Dixon said. "I don't know how severe it will be. It just depends how close the storm does come and how wave action affects the highway."
Sandy was downgraded to a tropical storm for about three hours early Saturday, but the National Hurricane Center upgraded the storm to a Category 1 hurricane again at 8 a.m., warning that it’s still expected to have a “widespread” impact up and down the East Coast until Tuesday.
At 11 p.m., the storm had maximum sustained winds of 75 mph and was moving northeast at 14 mph, about 400 miles south-southeast of Raleigh.
"It doesn't look as organized like a classic hurricane," WRAL meteorologist Mike Moss said. "It still has tropical characteristics, but it's becoming a bit of a hybrid, and that's a process that will continue over the next two days as it hooks around North Carolina."
When Sandy does shift to the northwest and make landfall Monday night, most likely on the Delmarva Peninsula or southern New Jersey, it could bring 80 mph wind gusts, coastal flooding and snow to the region.
"This is going to be a major storm for the Northeast," WRAL meteorologist Aimee Wilmoth said. "You can bet there's going to be power outages."
To allow local law enforcement agencies to concentrate on Sandy, second lady Jill Biden canceled campaign appearances in North Carolina on Sunday and Pennsylvania on Monday. The vice president's wife was to appear in Huntersville and Asheville on Sunday.
North Carolina officials expect some coastal flooding and beach erosion from Sandy's winds and rains through Monday.
"We're used to tropical storms. It's not a Category 5, so we're really laid back and looking forward to it," Wrightsville Beach resident Amy Chandler said. "I plan on staying up all night ... just to watch it come in."
Southern beaches should expect tropical storm force winds by Saturday evening and up to a 4-foot storm surge during high tide, officials said.
Canal Drive and Carolina Beach Avenue North in Carolina Beach were closed at 6:30 p.m. because of high water, authorities said. Minor flooding was reported in other low-lying sections of New Hanover County, and high winds downed a few trees, authorities said. No power outages were reported.
“The southern beaches will see the biggest impact from the storm on Saturday, and then that will shift to the northern beaches overnight and into the day Sunday,” Moss said.
Gov. Beverly Perdue declared a state of emergency Friday for 40 North Carolina counties east of Interstate 95 in anticipation of the storm, mobilizing additional state government resources to assist county and municipal governments in responding to the storm. The State Emergency Operations Center was activated Saturday morning to prepare for and respond to the storm.
Forecast models show 4 to 8 inches of rainfall accumulating in eastern North Carolina by mid-week. One extreme model forecast 12 inches of rain for the Outer Banks, WRAL Chief Meteorologist Greg Fishel said. The greatest rainfall totals will accumulate east of N.C. Highway 17, officials in numerous coastal counties said.
Along the southern North Carolina coast, winds will gust at 20 to 35 mph. Heavier rain and winds of up to 50 mph will hit Cape Hatteras and outlying areas to the north. The National Hurricane Center had posted tropical storm warnings for a stretch of coastline from Savannah, Ga., to Duck on the Outer Banks.
Lauren Grant promised daughters Riley and Bridgette a day at the shore, so they ignored Sandy and drove from Burlington and tried to pitch a tent on Wrightsville Beach in the gusting wind.
"We want to build sand castles. (The tent is) so we won't get wet while we build sand castles," Grant said. "I was supposed to go to Myrtle Beach, but then a friend of mind couldn't go. So, we decided to come build sand castles, but it's not working out so well."
In the Triangle, the storm will bring very little rain, possibly a quarter-inch, Fishel said, but it will be breezy, with wind gusting up to 30 mph for the rivalry game Saturday afternoon between North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina.
Rocky Mount, Greenville and areas to the east of the Triangle will see more substantial rain.
“This is not your typical hurricane that moves through the state in 12 to 24 hours,” Doug Hoell, state emergency management director, said in a statement. “Folks in eastern North Carolina will likely feel the effects of Hurricane Sandy beginning (Friday night) and continuing through Tuesday.”
Officials with Duke Energy and Dominion Power, which serves the northeast corner of the state, said they were monitoring the storm's progress and were readying crews for possible power outages.
The Red Cross also was mobilizing volunteers and emergency supplies at offices across the eastern part of the state to assist with any recovery efforts.
Carteret County officials opened a shelter at 6 p.m. Saturday in Atlantic Elementary School for any residents displaced by Sandy.
Insurance Commissioner Wayne Goodwin advised eastern North Carolina residents to protect their property, take an inventory of belongings and gather important paperwork so claims for any storm damage can be made quickly.