A storm that could strengthen into a tropical system was poised to hit North Carolina's coastline with 40 mph wind gusts and several inches of rain, forecasters said Wednesday.
Meteorologist Mark Bacon at the National Weather Service office in Wilmington said the storm probably would turn westward and come ashore early Thursday near Cape Fear.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami said the system was very wide and could bring winds to a large coastal area. A hurricane hunter aircraft was sent to examine the storm.
Gale warnings were posted for most of the Southeast coast from Florida to north of Maryland. Forecasters also issued a hurricane force wind warning, meaning ships more than 20 miles out at sea could expect winds of 65 mph or more. Waves Wednesday afternoon near the Gulf Stream would tower between 20 and 30 feet, subsiding to 8 to 12 feet Thursday night, the weather service said.
The hurricane center said chances were more than 50 percent that the storm would become a tropical system -- a rotating mass of wind and rain that sometimes can strengthen into a hurricane. It also said a low-pressure system over Hispaniola, the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic, had potential to strengthen as it moved northward.
But along the North and South Carolina coast, some seasoned residents said the storm was a typical blast that kicked up waves and kept most boats tied to their docks.
"Nobody's fishing. The ocean's too choppy. Solid whitecaps. The wind's ripping," said Ocracoke Island charter captain Dave Nagel. "It's just a regular old nor'easter."
Nagel said he saw a few larger commercial fishing boats heading out of the island's harbor to try to get their nets and tides in the sounds between barrier islands and the mainland were coming over the bank, "but they're not extreme."
Schools closed early in Dare County on the Outer Banks, and N.C. Route 12 flooded on Hatteras Island but didn't close, said county spokeswoman Dorothy Toolan. The local premiere of the movie "Nights in Rodanthe" was going ahead as scheduled, but locals who were in the film and drove up from Hatteras Island were offered discounted motel rooms if they needed to stay.
The North Carolina Ferry Division limited hours on the Hatteras to Ocracoke ferry route and canceled the afternoon run from Swanquarter to Ocracoke because of high winds.
Officials closed Highway 12 on Hatteras Island between Oregon Inlet and Rodanthe because of ocean over-wash and sand on the highway. Dare County officials said traffic is being stopped at the north end of the Bonner Bridge.
In Charleston, South Carolina, Dustin Ryan, part-owner and captain of Charleston Sailing Charters, said he was staying close to port and hoping for good weather by Friday.
"It makes for a restless night on a boat if you're sleeping in the marina, but that's about it," Ryan said.
The National Weather Service issued a warning that high winds could persist through Thursday.
Michael Emlaw, meteorologist at the National Weather Service's Charleston office, said large waves will cause beach erosion and some coastal flooding at high tide.
In Annapolis, Maryland, city officials were offering sandbags to prepare for the possibility of flooding in the low-lying City Dock area. They will likely be available through Friday.