• Vacationers leave as Arthur nears North Carolina
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     | July 04,2014
     
    ap photo

    Nicole Specht and Ryan Witman pack their Honda CRV, heading back home to Lancaster Pa. before dawn on Thursday, during a mandatory evacuation in Rodanthe, N.C. Arthur strengthened to a hurricane early Thursday and threatened to give North Carolina a glancing blow on Independence Day, prompting a stream of vacationers and residents to head home from some parts of the state’s popular but flood-prone Outer Banks.

    RODANTHE, N.C. — Hurricane Arthur gained strength in the Atlantic on Thursday and threatened to strike near the North Carolina coast on Independence Day, prompting thousands of vacationers and residents to leave parts of the state’s popular but flood-prone Outer Banks.

    Nichole Specht, 27, and Ryan Witman, 28, had pre-loaded their Honda CRV and left Hatteras Island at 3:30 a.m. Thursday, beating the expected traffic jam. The island was under an evacuation order, with no traffic allowed in. Officials asked an estimated 35,000 residents and travelers to leave through North Carolina Highway 12, the only road on and off Hatteras.

    Specht and Witman found the road wide open for their return home to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Specht said her parents left their rental later, at 5 a.m., and also found clear sailing.

    “We were just saying we were really, really lucky this year that the weather was so great, and then this,” Specht said as she ended a two-week vacation that included scouting sites for the couple’s wedding next year.

    Forecasters expect Arthur to speed up to a Category 2 storm and pass over or near the Outer Banks — a 200-mile string of narrow barrier islands with about 57,000 permanent residents — early Friday, bringing rain, heavy winds, storm surge and dangerous rip currents. Category 2 hurricanes pack winds of more than 96 mph.

    “We don’t know for sure if the exact center of Arthur is going to pass over land or not. The chances have been increasing for that to occur with the last couple of forecasts. But even if the exact center doesn’t go over you, you will experience impacts tonight. The weather is going downhill in North Carolina, even as we speak,” said Rick Knabb, the director of the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami.

    Before the storm hit, tourism officials had expected 250,000 people to travel to the Outer Banks for the holiday weekend. Gov. Pat McCrory sought to strike a balance between a stern warning to vacationers and optimism that part of the busy weekend could be salvaged.

    On Wednesday, he warned people: “Don’t put your stupid hat on.”

    But the next day, even as the storm gathered strength, he said: “Of course, this holiday weekend, the July 4th weekend, is one of the biggest weekends for coastal tourism in the state, and we anticipate a beautiful weekend after the Tropical Storm Arthur or the Hurricane Arthur is out of North Carolina.”

    Some visitors stayed put, hopeful the fast-moving storm would follow predictions to pass through by Friday afternoon. About 20 miles north of the only bridge off Hatteras, Sean Fitzgerald and his 5-year-old son, Cade, enjoyed a sunny morning lounging in beach chairs in the town of Kill Devil Hills.

    The sand was dotted with tourists. A handful of surfers took to the water. Like all areas north of Oregon Inlet, Kill Devils Hills wasn’t under an evacuation. Fitzgerald said he saw no need to disrupt his family’s vacation.

    “I plan to sit on the beach as long as the sun is here,” then head out for a seafood dinner, said Fitzgerald, 44, of Fairfax, Virginia.

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