The worst of Hurricane Earl was still hours away when water and sand began washing over N.C. 12 on Hatteras Island late Thursday afternoon.
It was a foreboding sign as nearly a full night of foul weather approached. Most tourists and many residents of North Carolina's central and northern barrier islands had already fled inland and, with the storm's precise path still unclear, those remaining were braced for hours of heavy wind, big waves and flooding.
What damage Earl inflicts in North Carolina will be revealed at sunrise today. The worst of the storm would likely be over by about 3 a.m., said Gail Hartfield of the National Weather Service's Raleigh office.
The storm had weakened some as it approached North Carolina, but still packed a Category 2 wallop and was expected to sideswipe the coast, hitting hardest as it passed off Cape Hatteras in early morning hours with winds of 100 mph or more.
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But even a small wobble in its path could mean huge differences in the power of the wind and waves churning offshore. So state officials had prepared for days, including placing 22 pieces of earth moving equipment along the coastal highway to scrape off sand and repair pavement after the storm. The Department of Transportation also positioned ferries to move people off Hatteras Island if the road to the lone bridge was, as expected, cut.
At 8 a.m. today, the storm should be about 120 miles northeast of Hatteras. There could be flooding from the sound side of the Outer Banks this morning, but the wind, rain and surf should begin dying down quickly, Hartfield said.
"By morning, we should pretty much be OK," she said, adding that beach weather Saturday was expected to be pleasant.
The economies of the Outer Banks, Ocracoke and Bogue Banks to the south rely almost solely on tourism, and one of the biggest questions about the hurricane was whether things could be cleaned up quickly enough to let tourists back on and salvage a decent Labor Day weekend.
In an afternoon news conference Thursday, Gov. Bev Perdue said that would be a priority.
"The very second the beaches become safe enough and the hurricane has passed, and we can open up those roads and get our tourists and our residents back, we're going to do that," she said.
For some whose homes and businesses were at stake, the wondering about Earl was intensely personal. As winds began to pick up Thursday, people in Morehead City screwed down hurricane shutters, secured boats and stored outdoor furniture. Lifelong buddies Lewis Piner and Danny Meyers dragged Meyers' catamaran from near the water's edge and moved it 20 yards into the weeds, tying it to a post.
For Rob Young and Andy Coburn, though, the questions about how the beach would look this morning were strictly professional.
The pair had left the comfort of the mountains before dawn Thursday to be on the Outer Banks as the storm rolled in. Young, director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, and Coburn, the assistant director, were at South Nags Head by afternoon, taking photos and video of a line of houses at risk of collapsing into the ocean. "Before" shots, as it were.
"If this storm comes anywhere close, some of these houses are going to fall in," Young said. "Right now, it's hardly started, and the waves are already crashing under some of these."
The pair is working on a study funded by the American Education Foundation to see whether it would be feasible for oceanfront communities to relocate houses that become seriously threatened by the sea.
'A storm's a storm'
Not everyone was worrying about Earl.
Ralph Poe, 83, has lived in his modest home in Atlantic Beach for 23 years. He has four cats and a stubborn streak. Despite an order intended to clear the island of people and tourists by 5 p.m. Thursday, Poe, who grew up in Raleigh and Cary, planned to ride out Earl in front of the television.
"They can't make me leave," he said. "When you're retired and not able to get out, you stay prepared."
About a block from the water, he had a generator ready if the electricity went out. Poe, who spent a career working on the railroad, appreciates the chatter of radio voices and leaves the scanner on 24 hours a day. If something happens, he'll hear it. But he didn't expect much.
"What's to be concerned about?" he said. "A storm's a storm."