KILL DEVIL HILLS, N.C. -- A strengthening Hurricane Arthur forced thousands of vacationers on the North Carolina coast to abandon their Independence Day plans while cities farther up the East Coast rescheduled fireworks displays threatened by rain from the storm.
Arthur strengthened to a Category 2 hurricane Thursday night, its winds strengthening to 100 mph before it made landfall near the southern end of the Outer Banks. Little change was expected in the storm's strength Thursday night and Friday, though Arthur was expected to weaken as it travels northward and slings rain along the East Coast.
The annual Boston Pops Fourth of July concert and fireworks show were held Thursday night because of potential heavy rain from Arthur, while fireworks displays in New Jersey, Maine and New Hampshire were postponed until later in the weekend.
Arthur reached land late Thursday between Cape Lookout and Beaufort, North Carolina, near the southern end of the Outer Banks, a 200-mile string of narrow barrier islands with about 57,000 permanent residents.
The islands are susceptible to high winds, rough seas and road-clogging sands, prompting an exodus that began Wednesday night.
Among the tourists leaving Hatteras Island were 27-year-old Nichole Specht and 28-year-old Ryan Witman of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The couple started driving at 3:30 a.m. Thursday on North Carolina Highway 12, the only road on and off Hatteras.
"We were just saying we were really, really lucky this year that the weather was so great, and then this," Specht said as she ended a two-week vacation.
Many island residents, meanwhile, decided to ride out the powerful storm rather than risk losing access to homes connected to the mainland by a highway prone to washouts.
"All the people that I know who live here are staying put," said Mike Rabe, who planned to stay in his Rodanthe home despite an evacuation order for surrounding Hatteras Island.
In the last hours before the hurricane's approach late Thursday, Lena Lines helped to move furniture from the basement to the first floor of the home she shares with her parents to save it from possible flooding. They live in a complex of canals and sound-front homes in the shadow of a memorial to the Wright Brothers, who made the first powered flight in Kill Devil Hills.
If you live in that neighborhood, "it's undeniable, you're going to get flooded" during a storm like this, Lines said.
Dave Gillis, who does maintenance work at Harris-Teeter grocery stores, was attaching sections of galvanized sheet metal over the glass wall at the entrance of a Kill Devil Hills location just as rain started to fall sporadically at 10:30 p.m.
"We're just getting to it," he said. "We've had a pretty busy day."
The departures of vacationers left things "pretty dead" on Hatteras Island during the normally bustling run-up to the Independence Day weekend, Rabe said. He spent Thursday running errands and helping neighbors prepare their homes for the storm.
Before the storm hit, tourism officials had expected 250,000 people to travel to the Outer Banks for the holiday weekend. Gov. Pat McCrory sought to strike a balance between a stern warning to vacationers and optimism that part of the busy weekend could be salvaged.
"Of course, this holiday weekend, the July 4th weekend, is one of the biggest weekends for coastal tourism in the state, and we anticipate a beautiful weekend after ... Hurricane Arthur is out of North Carolina," he said.
Arthur, the first named storm of the Atlantic season, prompted a hurricane warning for much of the North Carolina coast. On the Outer Banks' Ocracoke Island, accessible only by ferry, a voluntary evacuation took place.
Among those leaving the island was the Unmussig family of Midlothian, Virginia. They cut their vacation two days short when they left Thursday morning in an SUV towing a trailer filled with bicycles and kayaks.
"Our cottage was right on the sound and we didn't want that back-current surge coming in and flooding us out," said Donald Unmussig, 50.
"I just didn't want to risk getting caught there. I have to work Monday morning. I didn't want to be late," he added. "We just decided to cut the losses and go home and not have to deal with the problems."
Tropical storm warnings were also in effect for coastal areas of Virginia and as far north as Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
On the Massachusetts island of Nantucket, no evacuations were planned, but residents who have lived through many a fierce storm said they know better than to totally relax.
"I think that for the most part it's another storm, but you never know what can happen," said Rocky Fox, who owns the Chicken Box nightclub on the island. "Being the Fourth of July weekend, things seems to be magnified."
Fox said Nantucket residents are used to being prepared.
"Mother Nature was upset with us this winter, and she may not be through. We're on an island. You can never tell what it's going to do. You prepare for the worst and hope for the best."
Early Friday morning, Arthur was located about 40 miles north-northeast of Cape Lookout and about 40 miles west-southwest of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. It was moving northeast at 18 mph.