Hurricane Irene could hit anywhere from North Carolina to New York this weekend, leaving officials in the path of uncertainty to make a delicate decision: Should they tell tourists to leave during one of the last weeks of the multibillion-dollar summer season?
Most were in a wait-and-see mode, holding out to get every dime before the storm's path crystallizes. North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue told reporters not to scare people away.
"You will never endanger your tourists, but you also don't want to over inflate the sense of urgency about the storm. And so let's just hang on," Perdue said Wednesday. At the same time she warned to "prepare for the worst."
In the Bahamas, tourists cut their vacations short and caught the last flights out before the airport closed. Those who remained behind with locals prepared for a rough night of violent winds and a dangerous storm surge that threatened to punish the low-lying chain of islands. Irene already has hit Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, causing landslides and flooding homes. One woman was killed.
Irene was roaring its way Wednesday across the entire Bahamas archipelago, knocking down trees, tearing up roofs and posing the most severe threat to the smallest and least-populated islands, officials said.
Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham said preliminary reports from throughout the widely scattered islands showed no major injuries or deaths. But he added that the full extent of damage from the Category 3 storm would not be known until Friday, once it has cleared the country.
The latest forecast was good news for Nassau, the home to more than 200,000 and a major tourist destination located on New Providence. Capt. Stephen Russell, director of the National Emergency Management Agency, told AP that only "the fringes of tropical storm winds" should hit the capital, according to tracking data.
On the Outer Banks of North Carolina, some tourists heeded evacuation orders for a tiny barrier island as Irene strengthened to a Category 3 storm, with winds of 120 mph.
"We jam-packed as much fun as we could into the remainder of Tuesday," said Jessica Stanton Tice of Charleston, W.Va. She left Ocracoke Island on an early-morning ferry with her husband and toddler.
"We're still going to give North Carolina our vacation business, but we're going to Asheville" in the mountains, she said.
Officials said Irene could cause flooding, power outages or worse as far north as Maine, even if the eye of the storm stays offshore. Hurricane-force winds were expected 50 miles from the center of the storm.
Predicting the path of such a huge storm can be tricky, but the National Hurricane Center uses computer models to come up with a "cone of uncertainty," a three-day forecast that has become remarkably accurate in recent years. Forecasters are still about a day away from the cone reaching the East Coast. A system currently over the Great Lakes will play a large role in determining whether Irene is pushed farther to the east in the next three or four days.
The mood was calm in Virginia Beach, Va. Jimmy Capps, manager of the Breakers Resort Inn, said the 56-room hotel is about 80 percent booked for the weekend.
"It just appears they're not quite sure what the storm is going to do," Capps said. "The thing I'm amazed at now is that we haven't had more cancellations so far. Usually when they start mentioning the Outer Banks and Cape Lookout, which we are between, the phones light up."
In New England, some beachgoers started second-guessing vacation plans. Steven Miller, who runs a charter sport fishing company off the coast of Rhode Island, hasn't received any cancellations, but no one has called to schedule trips in the next few days, either.
In North Carolina's Outer Banks, where about 300,000 visitors come every week in the summer, tourism is the lifeblood of the towns that dot the sandy barrier islands. Dare County, whose beaches are the state's top vacation destination, ordered tourists to begin leaving this morning. Tourism represents about $834 million for businesses in the county, which has 8,000 rental homes and 3,000 hotel rooms.
Business owners are wary of sacrificing a weekend in August if it's not completely necessary.
"We had that occur last year, with Earl," said Veda Peters, co-owner of the Cypress House Inn in Kill Devil Hills. He was referring to the hurricane that passed off to the east, bringing little more than a night of rain and some wind gusts.
In the Bahamas, Meghan Stark, a college student from Baldwin, N.Y., had arrived Monday for a weeklong stay already delayed by a New York storm that postponed her flight for two days. Staff at the Sandyport Beaches Resort, where she was staying, initially reassured guests that the storm wasn't a major danger.
"We had asked them when we got here about the storm, and they said, 'Don't worry about it, these things blow over,' " she said.