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Hurricane Arthur Threatens Tourist Towns on North Carolina Coast

“Our major goal is to ensure that no lives are lost during this upcoming storm,” North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory said.

The East Coast’s Outer Banks and its sun-kissed string of barrier islands boom with hundreds of thousands of people in the summer.

So when a potentially dangerous storm threatens the southeastern Virginia and North Carolina coasts — as Hurricane Arthur is poised to do overnight Thursday — mobilizing so many visitors to safety in a short amount of time is key, officials say.

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“Our major goal is to ensure that no lives are lost during this upcoming storm,” North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory said at a news conference Wednesday afternoon.

With dangers of rough surf and flooding, he cautioned people to heed the warnings from officials: “Don’t put your stupid hat on.”

The tiny destination of Ocracoke Island in North Carolina began ordering voluntary evacuations Wednesday, as neighboring communities decide whether to make similar preparations. Earlier, McCrory declared a state of emergency for 25 coastal and adjoining inland counties ahead of Arthur’s arrival.

A hurricane warning was issued Wednesday by the National Hurricane Center for four counties in North Carolina: Carteret, Onslow, Dare and Hyde.

FEMA urged residents and visitors in potentially affected areas to monitor the storm closely and take steps to be prepared in advance of severe weather.

Dare County emergency officials ordered a mandatory evacuation of Hatteras Island scheduled to begin at 5 a.m. Thursday. After that time, no one will be allowed on the island, officials said.

"Coastal areas will likely see periods of heavy rains and gusty winds Thursday and Friday," Pamela Walker of the North Carolina Department of Public Safety said in a statement on Wednesday. "Coastal flooding, dangerous rip currents, heavy surf, and moderate beach erosion are also expected."

Its projected path has emergency management officials watching closely.

“On a regular summer day during rush hour, traffic is significant — but add a holiday weekend and you’re talking bumper to bumper,” said Erin Sutton, of Virginia Beach’s Office of Emergency Management. “So we look at evacuations very strategically. Instead of putting 450,000 people on the roads all at once, we look at places in low-lying areas or that are known to flood to evacuate first.”

But while regulars know the routine, what about the tourists?

Virginia Beach and many other coastal communities rely on reverse 911 calls to alert people about impending evacuations. Hotels and realty companies that rent out summer homes similarly keep tourists in the loop.

“We have a lot of people staying for a week, so they get [rental] packets that include evacuation routes,” Sutton said.

North Carolina has opened a call center for tourists to get the latest information, and it will be staffed 24 hours with live operators, McCrory said.

In addition, ferries to Outer Banks islands are on call in the event of mandatory evacuations.

Ocracoke sees its population triple to about 3,000, including day trippers, during the summer, said Tim Hass, spokesman for North Carolina’s Ferry Division. Six ferries hold about 36 cars each to shuttle all those people off the island.

It’s important to give at least one full day of daylight for evacuations, added Dorothy Killingsworth, of Dare County Emergency Management. The county includes the beach towns of Kill Devil Hills and Kitty Hawk.

“No doubt that those who live here understand the impacts of a storm,” Killingsworth said. “We’ve learned our lessons over the years. We all remember what Hurricane Irene [in 2011] was like.”

State and national parks in the region began closing early Wednesday. Cape Lookout National Seashore on Harkers Island and Hammocks Beach State Park were among the attractions that were ordering campers to leave.

About 300 Boy Scouts and leaders were sent home early from a retreat at Camp Boddie and Pamlico Sea Base as a precaution from the impending storm.

That meant packing up 200 tents and pulling another 200 boats from the water, said H. Ray Franks, scout executive with the Boy Scouts of America’s East Carolina Council.

The troop members came from as far away as Georgia, so ending early was a difficult but necessary decision, Franks added.

“You can’t wait until the last minute,” he said. “As our motto tells us: Be prepared.”

Gina Gentilesco and The Associated Press contributed to this report.