RALEIGH, NC -- A powerful Hurricane Earl threatened to sideswipe much of the East Coast just ahead of Labor Day, worrying countless vacationers who planned to spend the traditional last week of summer at the beach.
State officials are ordering tourists and residents to leave a North Carolina barrier island accessible only by ferries as powerful Hurricane Earl heads toward the U.S. coast.
Emergency management officials plan a Wednesday morning evacuation of Ocracoke Island. The decision came late Tuesday, as the hurricane whipped across the Caribbean with winds of up to 135 mph.
Lindsey Mooney said earlier Tuesday that the evacuation order would affect about 5,000 visitors to the island. The fewer than 800 year-round residents are also being asked to leave but aren't required to follow the order.
The Category 4 hurricane steamed across the Caribbean with winds of 135 mph. Earl was expected to remain over the open ocean before turning north and running parallel to the East Coast, bringing high winds and heavy rain to North Carolina's Outer Banks by late Thursday or early Friday.
In Hatteras, N.C., people are starting to worry about beach erosion. The Outer Banks are shrinking with some beaches losing 15 feet of sand per year. After Hurricane Isabel in 2003, the main road in Hatteras washed away.
From the Outer Banks, forecasters said, it could curve away from the coast somewhat as it makes it way north, perhaps hitting Massachusetts' Cape Cod and the Maine shoreline on Friday night and Saturday.
"My guests are calling and they don't know what to do and I don't know what to tell them," said Dave Dawson, owner of the oceanfront Cape Hatteras Motel in Buxton, N.C.
Forecasters cautioned that it was still too early to tell how close Earl might come to land. But not since Hurricane Bob in 1991 has such a powerful storm had such a large swath of the East Coast in its sights, said Dennis Feltgen, spokesman for the National Hurricane Center.
"A slight shift of that track to the west is going to impact a great deal of real estate with potential hurricane-force winds," Feltgen said.
Even if Earl stays well offshore, it will kick up rough surf and dangerous rip currents up and down the coast through the Labor Day weekend, a prime time for beach vacations, forecasters said.
The approaching storm troubled many East Coast beach towns that had hoped to capitalize on the BP oil spill and draw visitors who normally vacation on the Gulf Coast.
"We can't totally rule out a very close approach to either of the Cape Hatteras areas or Cape Cod and southern New England as the storm progresses further," said Bill Read, director of the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami.
Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Craig Fugate said Tuesday that people along the eastern seaboard should be prepared in case evacuations are necessary later this week.
Officials will be closely monitoring the movement of the Category 4 storm to determine which parts of the coast will face the greatest impact.
The Hurricane Center said it was too early to say what effect Earl would have in the U.S., but rip tides are a big concern up and down the Atlantic coast, reports CBS News weather anchor Dave Price.
A surfer died in Florida and a Maryland swimmer had been missing since Saturday in waves spawned by former Hurricane Danielle, which weakened to a tropical storm Monday far out in the north Atlantic.
Earl could make the surf even more treacherous.
FEMA already has teams deployed in the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and North Carolina. It has advance teams prepared to work with other states up the coast.
"Any small shift in the track could dramatically alter whether it makes landfall or whether it remains over the open ocean," said Wallace Hogsett, a meteorologist at the U.S. National Hurricane Center. "I can't urge enough to just stay tuned."
Earl barreled toward the U.S. coast early Tuesday after battering tiny islands across the northeastern Caribbean with heavy rain and winds that damaged homes and toppled power lines.