More than a quarter of a million residents and visitors were ordered to leave North Carolina's low-lying, exposed Outer Banks today as Hurricane Bonnie accelerated on a path that could carry its fury into the barrier island chain.
Light rain started falling on the Outer Banks by early afternoon and the National Weather Service said Bonnie's center with its 115mph winds could be near the islands by late Wednesday morning.
"All the models show hurricane force winds occurring all along North Carolina's Outer Banks within 36 hours . . . We would call the situation urgent. It's a 10 on a scale of one to 10," said Robert Woody, a spokesman with the U.S. National Park Service's Cape Hatteras National Seashore, which was evacuating four campgrounds.
The population of the Outer Banks swells to more than 200,000 people at the height of the summer vacation season, and officials estimate it could take 30 hours to move vacationers and residents off the islands.
By early afternoon today, the storm's eye was centered about 330 miles south of Cape Hatteras, which sits on the Outer Banks 50 miles south of Nags Head. It was moving toward the north-northwest at about 16 mph and was expected to turn gradually toward the north tonight, the weather service said.
At 2 p.m. EDT, Bonnie was centered near latitude 30.0 north, longitude 75.6 west.
Evacuation orders were posted today for the Outer Banks sections of Dare and Currituck counties, the island of Ocracoke and beach communities along the state's southern coast near Wilmington. Residents and tourists were urged to head for the mainland immediately. Ocracoke is accessible only by ferry.
Officials in Currituck and Hyde counties, along with Carteret County to the south, had not yet decided whether to expand evacuation orders to mainland areas.
Hurricane warnings were in effect from Murrells Inlet, S.C., to the North Carolina-Virginia border. A hurricane watch remained from Savannah, Ga., to Murrells Sound, and was extended northward from the Virginia-North Carolina border to Cape Henlopen, Del., including the lower Chesapeake Bay.
Storm warnings were lifted across the Bahamas as the storm's center passed north of the islands, where residents turned their attention east to a newly forming storm. Overnight, Tropical Storm Danielle was strengthening as it moved west-northwest about 1,200 miles east of the Lesser Antilles. At 11 a.m., Danielle centered near latitude 16.5 north and longitude 44.2 west.
Along the Outer Banks, eight to 10 foot waves were reported as Bonnie churned up the surf and lifeguards struggled to keep swimmers on the beach. An automated offshore buoy recorded 11-foot swells, and tides were expected to be at least 1 to 2 feet above normal overnight tonight ahead of the storm.
Although Bonnie has begun moving forward after drifting for much of the past two days, computer models were still uncertain where the storm would make landfall. One model showed the storm skirting east of the Outer Banks and accelerating northeast, while other forecasts predicted landfall in southern North Carolina Thursday evening.
The state of Virginia and some coastal communities elsewhere banned swimming because of riptides -- strong currents near the beaches -- that are blamed for three drownings over the weekend in South Carolina, North Carolina and Delaware.
"This is a warm-up storm. For preparedness, it's wonderful," said Steve Lyons, the top hurricane forecaster for the Weather Channel. "Even if this one doesn't hit, they'll have gotten ready and when the next one comes, they won't have to run around."
South Carolina Gov. David Beasley told 1,000 National Guardsmen to get ready. Officials estimated there were 125,000 tourists in the state's beach towns.
But while residents and business owners anxiously watch weather reports, there is one group that welcomes the storm -- surfers.
A red flag warning at the Isle of Palms County Park, S.C., banned swimming because of dangerous currents, so surfers just moved up the beach.
"Unfortunately we have to flirt with disaster to get some good waves," surfer Joe Hiller said as he took a break.
Despite threats from summer hurricanes and winter northeasters, the Grand Strand resort area near the North Carolina-South Carolina border has been booming in recent years, and builders raced to shore up half-built vacation condominiums ahead of the storm.
"We started securing lumber and materials to make sure it doesn't fly around and damage any structures," said Pete Unsworth, vice president of Jamison Construction in Myrtle Beach. "And we have our guys boarding up places where windows would be installed so the interiors don't get wet."