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Visitors abandon vacations as Maria churns near Carolinas

Maria is approaching the Outer Banks of the Carolinas. (NOAA)

Thousands of visitors abandoned their vacation plans and left North Carolina's Outer Banks ahead of Hurricane Maria as it moved northward in the Atlantic, churning up surf and bringing the possibility of flooding.

The hurricane that battered the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico last week has weakened slightly with maximum sustained winds Tuesday morning near 75 mph (120 kph). The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Maria was expected to keep gradually weakening and was forecast to become a tropical storm Tuesday night or Wednesday.

In North Carolina, officials estimated more than 10,000 people had left two barrier islands jutting into the Atlantic where visitors were ordered to evacuate. Dare County Emergency Management Director Drew Pearson said it was hard to determine exactly how many people had left Hatteras Island. But Pearson said officials think between 10,000 and 12,500 people were leaving. About 500 people live at Hatteras year-round and were not required to leave.

Schools were closed Tuesday in Dare County because of the storm conditions.

Hyde County officials said they had about 700 visitors when the evacuation was issued at Ocracoke Island, which has about 1,000 permanent residents. By Monday morning, about 225 visitors had left.

Authorities warned that high winds and flooding were possible threats as Maria passed well offshore.

Tourists packed up and drove off Monday -- some after only one day of what was supposed to be a weeklong vacation.

On Hatteras, Jay Wrenn and his wife packed up their car for the five-hour drive back home to Burlington, North Carolina.

They had arrived at their rented cottage in Rodanthe on Sunday with a week's worth of groceries. By noon Monday the macaroni salad they had made was in the trash.

Meanwhile, business owners braced for what they said would be yet another financial hit this season. A construction accident at the peak of tourist season in late July cut power to Ocracoke and Hatteras for several days, resulting in the evacuation of an estimated 50,000 tourists. Businesses lost millions of dollars.

The storm was centered about 210 miles (340 kilometers) southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, Tuesday morning and was moving north at 7 mph (11 kph). A tropical storm warning was in effect for a swath of the North Carolina coast from Bogue Inlet to the Virginia border.

Maria hit Puerto Rico as a major Category 4 hurricane and claimed dozens of lives in its rampage across the Caribbean.

NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER BULLETIN:

TROPICAL-STORM-FORCE WINDS NEARING THE NORTH CAROLINA OUTER

BANKS...

SUMMARY OF 1100 AM EDT...1500 UTC...INFORMATION

-----------------------------------------------

LOCATION...33.6N 73.1W

ABOUT 175 MI...285 KM SE OF CAPE HATTERAS NORTH CAROLINA

MAXIMUM SUSTAINED WINDS...75 MPH...120 KM/H

PRESENT MOVEMENT...N OR 360 DEGREES AT 7 MPH...11 KM/H

MINIMUM CENTRAL PRESSURE...971 MB...28.68 INCHES

WATCHES AND WARNINGS

--------------------

CHANGES WITH THIS ADVISORY:

A Storm Surge Warning has been issued from Ocracoke Inlet to Cape

Hatteras.

SUMMARY OF WATCHES AND WARNINGS IN EFFECT:

A Storm Surge Warning is in effect for...

* Ocracoke Inlet to Cape Hatteras

A Tropical Storm Warning is in effect for...

* Bogue Inlet to the North Carolina/Virginia border

* Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds

A Storm Surge Watch is in effect for...

* Cape Lookout to west of Ocracoke Inlet

* North of Cape Hatteras to Duck

A Storm Surge Warning means there is a danger of life-threatening

inundation, from rising water moving inland from the coastline in

the indicated locations. For a depiction of areas at risk, please

see the National Weather Service Storm Surge Watch/Warning Graphic,

available at hurricanes.gov. This is a life-threatening situation.

Persons located within these areas should take all necessary actions

to protect life and property from rising water and the potential for

other dangerous conditions. Promptly follow evacuation and other

instructions from local officials.

A Tropical Storm Warning means that tropical storm conditions are

expected somewhere within the warning area.

A Storm Surge Watch means there is a possibility of life-

threatening inundation, from rising water moving inland from the

coastline in the indicated locations. For a depiction of areas at

risk, please see the National Weather Service Storm Surge

Watch/Warning Graphic, available at hurricanes.gov.

For storm information specific to your area, including possible

inland watches and warnings, please monitor products issued by your

local National Weather Service forecast office.

DISCUSSION AND 48-HOUR OUTLOOK

------------------------------

At 1100 AM EDT (1500 UTC), the center of Hurricane Maria was located

near latitude 33.6 North, longitude 73.1 West. Maria is moving

toward the north near 7 mph (11 km/h), and this general motion with

some decrease in forward speed is expected through tonight. A turn

toward the north-northeast is expected on Wednesday. On the

forecast track, the center of Maria will pass east of the coast of

North Carolina during the next couple of days.

Maximum sustained winds are near 75 mph (120 km/h) with higher

gusts. Gradual weakening is forecast during the next couple of

days, and Maria is forecast to become a tropical storm within the

next day or so.

Maria is a large hurricane. Hurricane-force winds extend outward up

to 105 miles (165 km) from the center and tropical-storm-force winds

extend outward up to 240 miles (390 km). NOAA buoy 41025 located

about 15 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras recently reported a

sustained wind of 39 mph (63 km/h) with a wind gust to 49 mph (80

km/h).

The latest minimum central pressure estimated from reconnaissance

aircraft data is 971 mb (28.68 inches).

HAZARDS AFFECTING LAND

----------------------

WIND: Tropical storm conditions are expected within the warning

area beginning this afternoon.

STORM SURGE: The combination of a dangerous storm surge and the

tide will cause normally dry areas near the coast to be flooded by

rising waters moving inland from the shoreline. The water is

expected to reach the following heights above ground if the peak

surge occurs at the time of high tide...

Cape Lookout to Duck including the sound side of the Outer

Banks...2 to 4 ft

Surge-related flooding depends on the relative timing of the surge

and the tidal cycle, and can vary greatly over short distances. For

information specific to your area, please see products issued by

your local National Weather Service forecast office.

RAINFALL: Maria is expected to produce total rain accumulations

of 1 to 2 inches over the Outer Banks of North Carolina through

Wednesday.

SURF: Large swells generated by Maria are affecting much of the

east coast of the United States. These swells are also affecting

Bermuda, the Turks and Caicos Islands, and the Bahamas. These

swells are likely to cause life-threatening surf and rip current

conditions. Please consult products from your local weather office

for more information.

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