JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Hurricane Irene could hit anywhere from North Carolina to New York this weekend, leaving officials in the path of uncertainty to make a delicate decision. Should they tell tourists to leave during one of the last weeks of the multibillion-dollar summer season?
Irene, the first hurricane of the season, is likely to be a Category 4 as it moves off the coast of Florida on Thursday and Friday. Based on the latest projections from the National Hurricane Center, the storm is expected to brush eastern North Carolina on Saturday and reach New England by Monday.
At 8 p.m. Wednesday, Irene has 120 mph winds and was about 185 miles southeast of Nassau, The Bahamas, or 810 miles south of Cape Hatteras, N.C, The storm was moving to the northwest at 12 mph.
For northeast Florida and southeast Georgia, the effects of the storm will be minimal -- except for rough and potentially dangerous seas.
"The worst of our weather will be late Thursday night and Friday morning, but because it will be at least 200 miles offshore, only the coast areas will experience wind gusts and rain bands from the storm," Channel 4 chief meteorologist John Gaughan said. "If it was a smaller hurricane, we wouldn't even feel it."
Gaughan said the surf along area beaches will reach 9 to 11 feet on Friday, but urged all but experienced surfers to stay out of the water.
Most people in the Carolinas were in a wait-and-see mode Wednesday, holding out to get every dime before the storm's path crystalizes. North Carolina's governor told reporters not to scare people away.
"You will never endanger your tourists, but you also don't want to over inflate the sense of urgency about the storm. And so let's just hang on," North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue said Wednesday. At the same time she warned to "prepare for the worst."
In the Bahamas, tourists cut their vacations short and caught the last flights out before the airport was closed. Those who remained behind with locals prepared for a rough night of violent winds and a dangerous storm surge that threatened to punish the low-lying chain of islands.
Irene has already hit Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, causing landslides and flooding homes. One woman was killed.
On the Outer Banks of North Carolina, some tourists heeded evacuation orders for a tiny barrier island as Irene strengthened to a Category 3 storm..
"We jam-packed as much fun as we could into the remainder of Tuesday," said Jessica Stanton Tice of Charleston, W.Va. She left Ocracoke Island on an early-morning ferry with her husband and toddler.
"We're still going to give North Carolina our vacation business, but we're going to Asheville" in the mountains, she said.
Officials said Irene could cause flooding, power outages or worse as far north as Maine, even if the eye of the storm stays offshore. Hurricane-force winds were expected 50 miles from the center of the storm.
Predicting the path of such a huge storm can be tricky, but the National Hurricane Center uses computer models to come up with a "cone of uncertainty," a three-day forecast that has become remarkably accurate in recent years. Forecasters are still about a day away from the cone reaching the East Coast.
The mood was calm in Virginia Beach, Va. Jimmy Capps, manager of the Breakers Resort Inn, said the 56-room hotel is about 80 percent booked for the weekend, despite a few cancellations.
"It just appears they're not quite sure what the storm is going to do," Capps said. "The thing I'm amazed at now is that we haven't had more cancellations so far. Usually when they start mentioning the Outer Banks and Cape Lookout, which we are between, the phones light up."
In New England, some beachgoers started second-guessing vacation plans. Steven Miller, who runs a charter sport fishing company off the coast of Rhode Island, hasn't received any cancellations, but no one has been calling to schedule trips in the next few days, either.
"The hoopla beforehand could end the season," Miller said. "Everybody yanks their boats out, everybody leaves, and then they don't come back because it's so late in the season."
Sandbags were in demand in the Northeast to protect already saturated grounds from flooding. Country music star Kenny Chesney moved a Sunday concert in Foxborough, Mass., up to Friday to avoid the storm. High school football games were also rescheduled, and officials still hadn't decided whether to postpone Sunday's dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial on the National Mall. Hundreds of thousands were expected for that event.
"Tourism depends so much on the weather, which is such an unpredictable element," said Samantha Rich, a tourism extension specialist at North Carolina State University. "An extremely hot season, an extremely cold season, a hurricane - it can make or break a season, especially for small businesses."
In North Carolina's Outer Banks, where about 300,000 visitors come every week in the summer, tourism is the lifeblood of the towns that dot the sandy barrier islands. Dare County beaches are the state's top vacation destination. Tourism represents about $834 million for businesses in the county, which has 8,000 rental homes and 3,000 hotel rooms, plus campground spots.
Business owners are wary of sacrificing a weekend in August if it's not completely necessary.
"We had that occur last year, with Earl," said Veda Peters, co-owner of the Cypress House Inn in Kill Devil Hills. He was referring to the hurricane that passed off to the east, bringing little more than a night of rain and some wind gusts. "They evacuated the county, and then Labor Day weekend was gorgeous in the Outer Banks."
So far, the Cypress House Inn is fully booked for the coming weekend, but Peters already is getting calls about the weather.
"If it's safe for people to be here, we want them to be here. If it's not safe, we'll say so and we'll get you in as soon as it is," said Lee Nettles, managing director or the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau. "We have a peak summer season and we're in the midst of that."
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