By Colleen Jenkins and Gene Cherry
(Reuters) – Tropical Storm Arthur was expected to reach hurricane strength by Thursday, dousing some July Fourth holiday plans on the U.S. East Coast as officials closed beaches and tourist sites and delayed fireworks shows in anticipation of heavy rain and fierce winds.
Tropical storm warnings and hurricane watches were issued along North Carolina’s coast after the first named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season strengthened overnight, U.S. forecasters said on Wednesday.
The National Hurricane Center lifted the tropical storm watch for Florida but warned Arthur could produce dangerous rip currents along the coasts of several Southern states.
The storm also was forecast to dump up to 2 inches of rain across the eastern Florida peninsula and coastal North Carolina and could cause flooding as the result of storm surge.
Predictions of a soaked holiday had some local businesses worried about taking a financial hit and vacationers wondering if they should cancel their beach trips.
“We’re telling them what we know now, that they need to pay attention but that it looks like it’s going to be gone by the weekend,” Debbie Smith, mayor of Ocean Isle Beach in North Carolina, told the Wilmington StarNews.
Several towns and villages on North Carolina’s Outer Banks and coast began rescheduling Independence Day festivities and fireworks plans as the storm approached.
But Lee Nettles, executive director of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau in Manteo, said he did not think businesses would be hurt too badly by the storm.
“You are looking at a day or maybe day and a half that will potentially be impacted, so I don’t know that the economic impact will be much or anything really in terms of tourism spending,” he said.
The storm remained out at sea with maximum sustained winds of 60 miles per hour on Wednesday, about 105 miles (165 km) east-northeast of Cape Canaveral, Florida, and 260 miles south-southeast of Charleston, South Carolina.
Moving northward at 7 mph, Arthur could be packing hurricane force winds of 85 mph (135 kph) when the outer bands brush the Carolinas on Thursday and Friday before weakening, according to the hurricane center’s forecast maps.
The National Park Service ordered the evacuation by 5 p.m. Wednesday of visitors from the narrow barrier islands of the Cape Lookout National Seashore on North Carolina’s central coast.
In the more populous Cape Hatteras National Seashore to the north, where up to 200,000 visitors crowd North Carolina’s Hatteras and Ocracoke islands, the park service said it would close campgrounds, lighthouses and beaches beginning at noon on Wednesday.
(Reporting by Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Gene Cherry in Raleigh, North Carolina; Additional reporting by David Adams in Miami; Editing by Susan Heavey and Eric Beech)