Hurricane Earl weakened to a Category 2 storm around 8 p.m. Thursday just as it approached the coast line.
Forecasters say Hurricane Earl continues to weaken as it passes over North Carolina's Outer Banks, but is still packing powerful winds as it heads up the Eastern Seaboard.
They warn hurricane-force winds of 74 mph or more are extending 70 miles from its center and tropical storm-force winds of at least 35 mph are reaching more than 200 miles out.
Federal, state and local authorities were waiting for daybreak to begin patrolling the coast to check for damage.
The Coast Guard planned an airplane flyover of the Outer Banks and were prepared for search-and-rescue helicopter flights. State transportation officials were waiting to check Highway 12, which connects the Outer Banks with the mainland, for washouts and downed trees.
Governor Beverly Perdue will hold a media briefing Friday at 8 a.m. concerning Hurricane Earl.
The North Carolina National Guard is also deploying 80 troops. President Obama's emergency declaration authorizes the Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to coordinate all disaster relief efforts.
Fort Bragg officials said Thursday that it's been told it will be the staging area for North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.
Crews from Progress Energy are on stand-by to head out to the coast in case of widespread power outages.
"Our local crews in the area are on alert and are preparing their vehicles and equipment to respond to outages as they occur," said Jeff Brooks with Progress Energy.
NC Electric Cooperatives is also watching the power grids all along the coast and tracking Hurricane Earl so local and national crews will be ready for any loss of power.
"We've got about 400 crews on standby in Mississippi, Georgia and Tennessee and they're ready to go once they get the call," said Jane Pritchard with NC Electric Cooperatives.
Power companies are reminding residents to avoid down power lines and reminding them they are committed to getting the coast back up and running.
"We're ready to begin restoration just as soon as it's safe to do so," Pritchard said.
Meanwhile, the Red Cross loaded up supplies in Raleigh Thursday and are also ready to respond after the storm.
Earlier Thursday, Gov. Perdue briefed the media, saying President Obama has signed a federal emergency declaration before landfall in anticipation of damages.
She urged coastal residents to make safe choices and evacuate if needed.
"Remain prepared and vigilant," said Perdue. "The time to leave is now and ride this one out somewhere safe."
Perdue said residents who choose to stay on North Carolina's barrier islands are likely on their own should they need immediate help when Hurricane Earl arrives. She said governments won't put emergency responders in harm's way as the brunt of the storm reaches land overnight.
About 1,600 people had been evacuated from Ocracoke Island before the last ferry left Thursday afternoon.
Perdue said residents along the coast had known for 36 hours that evacuations were advised.
Day two of evacuations along North Carolina's coast began at 5 a.m. Thursday with Carteret County residents and tourists.
Dare County officials issued an order at 6 a.m. Thursday for all visitors to leave. Officials had ordered visitors and residents on Hatteras Island out Wednesday. Residents like Nancy Scarborough, who manages the Hatteras Cabanas, said Outer Banks residents have a tight-knit community that takes care of its own.
"I worry about not being able to get back here," she said. "I'd rather be stuck on this side than that side."
The town of Nags Head had issued a mandatory evacuation order for both residents and visitors in South Nags Head.
Dare County officials warned people living on the beachfront to move because coastal flooding is expected as Earl passes offshore early Friday.
Farther south, Carteret County ordered residents and visitors to leave the Bogue Banks barrier island early Thursday - that included the municipal areas of Atlantic Beach, Pine Knoll Shores, Indian Beach and Emerald Isle.
Carteret and Dare County schools are closed Thursday and Friday.
Currituck County government issued a mandatory evacuation of all visitors on the Currituck Outer Banks. This includes all sections of Corolla and the 4-wheel drive area.
Hyde County began evacuating people from the Outer Banks islands Wednesday.
The State Emergency Operations Center said it recommends that persons evacuating because of Hurricane Earl register with the American Red Cross "Safe and Well" program to ensure that friends and family know their plans. The website is https://safeandwell.communityos.org/cms/.
Complete shelter list:
- Northside High School, 7868 Free Union Church Rd, Pinetown, NC 27865
- Southside High School, 5700 Hwy 33 E, Chocowinity, NC 27817
- Newport Middle School, 500 East Chatham Street, Newport, NC 28570
- Brinson Memorial Elementary School, 319 Neuse Forest Ave., New Bern, NC 28560
- Ben D. Quinn Elementary School, 4275 Dr. M.L. King, Jr. Blvd., New Bern, NC 28562
- Havelock High School, 101 Webb Blvd., Havelock, NC 28532
- Vanceboro Farm Life Elementary School, 2000 Farm Life Ave., Vanceboro, NC 28586
- Swansboro High School, 161 Queens Creek Road, Swansboro, NC 28584
- Jacksonville Commons Middle School, 315 Commons Drive South, Jacksonville, NC 28546 (Pet Friendly Shelter operated by CART)
- Dixon Middle School, 200 Dixon School Road, Holly Ridge, NC 28445
- Pamlico Community College, 5049 Highway 306 S., Grantsboro, NC 28529
- North Pitt High School, 5659 NC route 11, Bethel, NC 27812
The storm is likely to disrupt travel as people try to squeeze in a few more days of summer vacation over Labor Day.
Continental Airlines canceled 50 departures from Newark on its Continental Connection and Continental Express routes along the East Coast, beginning Thursday night.
Other airlines were watching the forecast and waiving fees for changing flights. Amtrak canceled trains to Newport News, near Virginia's coast, from Richmond, Va., and Washington. Ferry operators across the Northeast warned their service would likely be interrupted.
And the Army Corps of Engineers warned it would have to close the two bridges connecting Cape Cod to the rest of Massachusetts if winds got above 70 mph.