Three counties urged tourists, residents of low-lying areas or those with medical problems to leave for safer ground. The North Carolina National Guard activated 81 soldiers and airmen to prepare to support emergency operations if help is needed.
Gov. Beverly Perdue declared a state of emergency, allowing North Carolina to apply for federal money to help with hurricane cleanup. She urged coastal residents and vacationers to treat the storm with respect because a small shift to the west in Earl's predicted offshore track could mean significant damage.
"My message to the people of North Carolina is a simple one, it's to be prepared," Perdue said.
The North Carolina National Guard is deploying 80 troops to help and Gov. Perdue sent a letter to President Barack Obama requesting a federal emergency declaration before landfall in anticipation of damages.
Earl was expected to reach the North Carolina coast late Thursday 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 on the one hand, and dangerous storm surge, heavy rain and hurricane-force winds on the other.
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.
Tourists visiting barrier islands were ordered to evacuate Wednesday. The response in Dare County jammed the only highway from Hatteras Island back to the North Carolina mainland with hundreds of cars stopped in traffic on state Highway 12.
Ferries carried people from Hyde County's Ocracoke Island.
North Carolina Emergency Management Department officials say two ferries began making the 2 1/2-hour trip to the mainland from Ocracoke shortly after 6 a.m. Wednesday. Hyde County spokeswoman Jamie Tunnell says about 30 cars and trucks pulling campers were waiting in line for the first ferry before 6 a.m.
“Ferries are the only way off unless you have a private plane or boat,” Tunnell said.
The American Red Cross said it has opened a shelter for evacuees from Ocracoke at North Pitt High School, 5659 NC route 11, Bethel, NC, 27812. It can hold up to 170 people. Other area shelters are on standby.
Carteret County declared a state of emergency Wednesday. Schools will close Thursday and Friday. County officials and county's mayors said they wanted residents of low-lying areas or those in manufactured homes to leave. A pet-friendly shelter was to open at noon Thursday at a middle school in Newport.
A separate shelter was to open early Thursday for people who need oxygen, electricity or have other medical problems that could put them at risk if power is lost and roads are closed.
In Currituck County, however, people in a coastal community reachable only by four-wheel drive vehicles won't be required to evacuate. The 12-mile-long area known as Carova has about 800 homes and about 100 full-time residents.
"It could be a day or two before we get that beach road open -- they could certainly be stranded," said county Manager Dan Scanlon.
Officials decided against evacuating because Earl is forecast to head north before strongly affecting the area, Scanlon said.
People were being telephoned and urged to leave, and many tourists were seen making the 30-minute drive along the beach to the nearest paved road, he said.
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/.
The North Carolina State Emergency Response Team also said in a statement Wednesday that people living in vulnerable areas, such as storm-surge zones, flood plains, mobile homes and camper or RV parks, should evacuate now.
In the Triangle, some healthcare providers are also preparing to help if Hurricane Earl causes major problems along the coast.
"We haven't received any request for assistance; we just want to be sure that we have everything in line," said Dalton Sawyer with the UNC Healthcare System said. "On one hand they're very mindful of the economic impact of closing the beaches, closing the outer banks. On the other hand, the top priority of all of us in emergency management and public safety is life safety so we have to be sure if we're going to err; we err on the side of caution."
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.
Virginia's Gov. Bob McDonnell has also declared a state of emergency as a precaution, allowing the state to position staff and resources ahead of the storm. Emergency officials as far north as Maine urged people to have disaster plans and supplies ready.
Earl was expected to remain over the open ocean before turning north and running parallel to the East Coast, bringing high winds and heavy rain to North Carolina’s Outer Banks by late Thursday or early Friday. From there, forecasters said, it could curve away from the coast somewhat as it makes it way north, perhaps hitting Massachusetts’ Cape Cod and the Maine shoreline on Friday night and Saturday.
Nearly two dozen bulldozers and other sand-moving equipment are waiting along Outer Banks highways to clear roads along the barrier islands that might get blocked.
State Transportation Department spokeswoman Nicole Meister said Wednesday that workers and equipment are ready to clear a half-dozen spots that are often blocked by sand moved by storms.
The state had to rebuild about a quarter-mile of State Highway 12 in November after the main road running north and south on Hatteras Island was chewed up by rough surf.
Fire Chief Benny Nichols has authorized the deployment of resources of the Fayetteville Fire Department to assist any areas hard hit by the approaching storm.
According to Chief Nichols, "We are ready to assist our neighbors just in case things go bad on the coast."
Forecasters cautioned that it was still too early to tell how close Earl might come to land. But not since Hurricane Bob in 1991 has such a powerful storm had such a large swath of the East Coast in its sights, said Dennis Feltgen, spokesman for the National Hurricane Center.
“A slight shift of that track to the west is going to impact a great deal of real estate with potential hurricane-force winds,” Feltgen said.
Even if Earl stays well offshore, it will kick up rough surf and dangerous rip currents up and down the coast through the Labor Day weekend, a prime time for beach vacations, forecasters said.
The approaching storm troubled many East Coast beach towns that had hoped to capitalize on the BP oil spill and draw visitors who normally vacation on the Gulf Coast.
In the Florida Panhandle, which has struggled all summer to coax back tourists scared away by the Gulf oil spill, bookings were up 12 percent over last year at the Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort.
The resort is nowhere near Earl's projected path, and spokeswoman Laurie Hobbs said she suspects the increase in reservations was partly because of a discount the hotel is offering and partly because of the hurricane.
"Weather drives business," she said. "They go to where the weather is best."
If Earl brings rain farther inland, it could affect the U.S. Open tennis tournament, being played now through Sept. 12 in New York City.
"We're keeping our eye on it very closely," said United States Tennis Association spokesman Chris Widmaier.