NAGS HEAD, N.C. —Hurricane Earl steamed toward the Eastern Seaboard on Wednesday as communities from North Carolina to New England kept a close eye on the forecast, worried that even a slight shift in the storm's predicted offshore track could put millions of people in the most densely populated part of the country in harm's way.
Vacationers along North Carolina's dangerously exposed Outer Banks used the day before the hurricane was expected to arrive to pack their cars and flee inland, cutting short their summer just before Labor Day weekend.
The governors of North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland declared states of emergency, sea turtle nests on one beach were scooped up and moved to safety, and the crew of the Navy's USS Cole rushed to get home to Norfolk, Va., on Wednesday ahead of the bad weather. The destroyer was supposed to return later this week from a seven-month assignment fighting piracy off Somalia.
Farther up the East Coast, emergency officials urged people to have disaster plans and supplies ready and weighed whether to order evacuations as they watched the latest maps from the National Hurricane Center — namely, the "cone of uncertainty" showing the broad path the storm could take.
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Earl was expected to reach the North Carolina coast late tonight and wheel to the northeast, staying offshore while making its way up the Eastern Seaboard. But forecasters said it could move in closer, perhaps coming ashore in North Carolina, crossing New York's Long Island and passing over the Boston metropolitan area and Cape Cod.
That could make the difference between modestly wet and blustery weather, and dangerous storm surge, heavy rain and hurricane-force winds.
"Everyone is poised and ready to pull the trigger if Earl turns west, but our hope is that this thing goes out to sea and we're all golfing this weekend," said Peter Judge, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Earl was a powerful Category 4 hurricane centered more than 680 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras, N.C., with winds of 135 mph.
The only mandatory evacuations were for 30,000 people ordered to leave Hatteras Island on the Outer Banks. Dare County spokeswoman Dorothy Toolan said there was no official notification of the evacuation order, and many residents didn't appear worried.