Wielding 100-mph winds and punishing rain, Hurricane Arthur made landfall late Thursday at Cape Lookout, N.C., threatening severe flooding and wind damage as it disrupted the July 4 holiday for a quarter-million beachgoers.
The first named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season came ashore about 11:15 p.m., the National Weather Service said, moving northeast at 18 mph. By midnight, it had reached the Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge and was about 50 miles from Cape Hatteras.
The weather service warned of widespread flooding, "large and damaging waves," and a storm surge of 3 to 5 feet in North Carolina.
Thousands of tourists packed up and left the fragile Outer Banks as Arthur approached. But thousands more planned to stay and ride out the hurricane, which was expected to pass quickly and move north.
Arthur came ashore as a Category 2 hurricane, with maximum sustained winds of 100 mph.
The storm disrupted July 4 plans for an estimated 250,000 people on the 200-mile string of barrier islands, including a year-round population of more than 50,000.
Although state emergency officials said beachgoers could expect to salvage most of the three-day holiday weekend, they warned people to stay indoors and prepare for flooding, power outages, wind damage and rip tides.
A mandatory evacuation was ordered in Dare County for low-lying Hatteras Island, a thin ribbon of sand connected to the mainland by a bridge built on shifting sands. The bridge and connecting road were shut Thursday evening.
"The hurricane is a serious one that presents substantial risks due to its anticipated high winds and potential for ocean overwash and soundside flooding," the Dare County Emergency Management center warned. "Significant ocean overwash is expected."
A voluntary evacuation was in effect farther south for Ocracoke Island, connected to the mainland by ferries that ceased operations Thursday afternoon. States of emergency were declared for 26 North Carolina counties.
"I don't take these storms lightly, but I've never left during a hurricane," said Renee Cahoon, 58, the former mayor of Nags Head on the Outer Banks, where she owns Cahoon's Market grocery and has lived in a beachfront home since 1971.
Cahoon planned to keep the store open until the normal closing time of 10 p.m., then reopen Friday after the storm clears out.
Forecasters predicted 4 to 6 inches of rain along the Outer Banks, with up to 8 inches in some areas. One to 3 inches of rain was forecast for inland areas.
At the Jolly Roger Pub and Marina on Ocracoke Island, owner Peggy Wrobleski has stayed on the island during every hurricane and nor'easter since she opened the restaurant 26 years ago. She served lunch to about 75 customers Thursday, then closed to give her staff time to bring in the chairs and tables and get home to wait out the storm.
"I'm not too worried," she said. "This isn't my first rodeo."
Farther north, in tourist beach towns like Nags Head, Kill Devil Hills and Duck, many visitors were planning to stay put and resume their holiday plans as early as Friday afternoon, when skies were expected to clear.
"Don't put your stupid hat on," North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory warned during a televised news conference. "Please hunker down, and we'll all get through this together."
Later, after the storm shifted slightly westward, the governor told reporters that emergency officials were concerned about rivers flooding in eastern North Carolina.
McCrory said officials were concerned about Highway 12, an exposed two-lane road that washes out even in minor storms. The road, which runs much of the length of the Outer Banks, was severed on Hatteras Island and remained flooded for weeks after Hurricane Irene in 2011.
"You literally may have 5 to 10 yards of space between water on both sides" of the highway, McCrory said.
The state has stationed 25 loaders, graders and other heavy equipment on the Outer Banks to remove any sand or washover that blocks the narrow highway. Dare County officials said the road was almost certain to flood.
Arthur was expected to bring soaking rain and rough surf along much of the Eastern Seaboard late Thursday and early Friday. Forecasters warned of possible flooding and rip currents off Long Island and the New Jersey shore. Tropical storm warnings were in effect for Nantucket and Cape Cod.
In Boston, the annual Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular was moved up a day to Thursday to avoid Arthur's wind and rain. It was the first time since 1992 that the popular display had been rescheduled. A flag raising and Independence Day parades scheduled for Friday were canceled.
Lee Nettles, executive director of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, said thousands of visitors had decided to remain in rented cottages or hotels. Because 80% of beach rentals are weekly, he said, most visitors planned to write off Thursday but resume their holidays as early as Friday afternoon.
"We're taking it seriously and we want people to be safe, but we're hoping it'll just be an inconvenience," Nettles said. "By Friday afternoon, it should be well out of here and we could see some sunshine again."
Four fireworks shows scheduled for Friday were postponed in the Outer Banks, rescheduled for Saturday, Sunday and Monday.
At the Roanoke Island Inn in Manteo, owner John Wilson was concerned by forecasts that Arthur might shift farther west up Pamlico Sound and trigger flooding along the Croatan Sound west of Roanoke Island. That's what happened in August 2011, when Hurricane Irene roared up the sound, flooding all of downtown Manteo. It took six months to recover, Wilson said.
Nine of the inn's 10 guests were staying on for Hurricane Arthur, and the single cancellation was replaced by a new guest, Wilson said. He said his precautions were "the usual drill for a hurricane": closing shutters, parking cars on high ground, and bringing in boats and outdoor furniture.
A panel of plywood bolted to the inn's front door contained the names of several past hurricanes — and the newest addition, "Awful July 4th Arthur."
On Hatteras Island, most people complied with the mandatory evacuation order, said Capt. Kathryn Bryan of the Dare County Sheriff's Office. The island has a year-round population of about 4,000, but is visited by thousands of tourists and fishermen during the summer.
Traffic moved smoothly Thursday as cars left the island, with no significant snarls, Bryan said.
Even during more dangerous hurricanes, many year-round island residents ignore evacuation orders and stay home. Bryan said she expected some locals to ride out the storm this time, and said officials didn't force anyone to leave.
"But if they choose to stay, it's on them," she said. No emergency rescue services will be available during the storm, she said.
Greg Baker, the state public safety commissioner, warned people to stay off roads Thursday night and Friday. He said most deaths and injuries during storms came when drivers plowed onto flooded roads.
"Even 6 inches of water can be devastating," Baker said.
McCrory said officials were planning for a quick recovery Friday. The state National Guard was on standby, along with 400 state Highway Patrol troopers assigned to the area.
The governor said he still planned to attend a Fourth of July parade Friday in the coastal town of Southport, south of the Outer Banks.
"We anticipate a beautiful holiday weekend after Hurricane Arthur clears out," he said.