Thousands Urged to Flee Hurricane Isabel

MANTEO, N.C. (AP) -- More than 75,000 people were urged to evacuate the North Carolina coast Tuesday as Hurricane Isabel weakened but remained a dangerous storm on a track toward land.

The National Hurricane Center posted a hurricane watch from Little River Inlet, S.C., to Chincoteague, Va., including Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds and a large part of Chesapeake Bay.

Forecasters said Isabel appeared to be on a course to hit Thursday on the North Carolina coast and move northward through eastern Virginia. Large swells and dangerous surf already were being felt along the coast.

The storm's maximum sustained wind had decreased to about 105 mph. More weakening was possible Tuesday but the storm could strengthen again before landfall, the National Hurricane Center said in Miami.

On tiny, low-lying Tangier Island in Chesapeake Bay, Wallace Pruitt was busy storing chairs, swings and other outdoor furniture at the bed-and-breakfast inn he runs with his wife, Shirley.

``I don't usually get too excited about something like this, but this one has so much force I've been preparing for two days,'' said Pruitt, 63.

The latest evacuation order was for the low-lying Outer Banks islands, which includes an estimated 75,000 people from Hatteras to Duck, 30,000 of them permanent residents. A day earlier, hundreds of residents of vulnerable Ocracoke and Bald Head islands were ordered to evacuate.

Dare County spokeswoman Dorothy Toolan said people wouldn't be forced to leave.

``We do have some fire departments in municipalities that will visit neighborhoods and encourage people, but we don't have any kind of law enforcement knocking on doors, forcing people to leave,'' Toolan said.

At 11 a.m. EDT Tuesday, Isabel's maximum sustained wind had slowed to near 105 mph, down from about 125 mph at 5 p.m. Monday, making it a Category 2 storm. On Sunday, Isabel's wind had hit 160 mph, making it a Category 5 storm.

The storm was moving north-northwest at around 8 mph and was about 600 miles southeast of North Carolina's Cape Hatteras, the hurricane center reported.

Hurricane center meteorologist Eric Blake said people should not let their guard down even though the storm was weakening.

``Hurricanes are notorious for gaining strength as they cross the Gulf Stream,'' he said. Even at a Category 2, he added, ``there's still a lot of potential for danger.''

Instead of heading to sea early Tuesday, commercial fisherman Rob West stayed home in Manteo monitoring weather reports. He noted that Isabel, the first major hurricane to target the North Carolina coast in four years, lost a little gusto during the night.

``We're kind of breathing a sigh of relief,'' West said.

However, he had already moved his fishing boat to a safer harbor and triple-tied it to its moorings. He'd cut down three trees near his home to keep them from falling on the house or electrical lines.

North of Manteo in Virginia, ships from the Navy's Atlantic Fleet started heading out to sea Tuesday from Norfolk, Va., and Earle, N.J., to sail out of the hurricane's direct path and avoid being battered against their piers. The Air Force had started flying airplanes from coastal bases to fields inland.

Moving the ships, manned by some 13,000 sailors, costs ``in the millions'' but the expense would be far greater if the ships were battered in port, said Adm. Robert J. Natter, commander of the Norfolk-based Atlantic Fleet. ``We cannot afford to have these very expensive, valuable national assets caught in port in a storm like this.''

Isabel hadn't veered from its expected track, said Lt. Dave Roberts, a Navy meteorologist at the hurricane center. After landfall it could spread heavy rain from North Carolina all the way to the New England states, he said.

Emergency officials in western Maryland and central and eastern Pennsylvania, where the ground already is saturated in places by a wet summer, had started planning for the possibility of high wind and heavy rain by Friday morning.

The storm could enter Pennsylvania with wind just below the hurricane-strength threshold of 74 mph, said weather service meteorologist John LaCorte in State College, Pa.

New Jersey emergency management officials planned conference calls Tuesday with officials in areas where Isabel could cause flooding. Local officials were on alert at towns including Bound Brook, where the Raritan River peaked at 20 feet over flood stage when Hurricane Floyd struck in 1999, and two people died.

Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner had already declared a state of emergency, putting National Guardsmen, state police and transportation crews on full alert and activating about 500 National Guard troops.

Isabel is the first major hurricane to threaten the mid-Atlantic since Floyd wreaked havoc on the East Coast in September 1999, causing 56 deaths.