NAGS HEAD, N.C. — Tropical Storm Gabrielle swirled Saturday toward North Carolina's Outer Banks, but its promised rain and high winds weren't enough to scare residents and vacationers away from the beach.
"When people hear about tropical storms, they assume houses are going to fall in the ocean," said Margot Jolly, a lifeguard with Nags Heads Ocean Rescue. "They shouldn't overreact like that. Just relax, stay inside and have a little hurricane party."
Forecasters said the storm was likely to strengthen before brushing the Outer Banks this afternoon. But there were no indications Gabrielle would become a hurricane before turning north and curving back out into the Atlantic.
"It's not going to be one that will go down in the annals of the record books," said Michael Caropolo, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Wilmington.
At 5 p.m. Saturday, Gabrielle was centered about 185 miles southeast of Cape Lookout, N.C., moving northwest about 8 mph. The storm had top sustained winds of about 40 mph, down slightly from earlier in the day.
Forecasters issued a tropical storm warning for the North Carolina coastline north of Surf City through the Outer Banks and to the Virginia border. A tropical storm watch also was issued northward to Cape Charles, Va., along the Atlantic Coast and to New Point Comfort peninsula, along the Chesapeake Bay.
The first showers from Gabrielle were expected to reach the coastline by Saturday night. Caropolo said the latest forecast called for the storm's center to sneak past Cape Hatteras — the easternmost point on the Outer Banks — about 8 p.m. today without actually making landfall on the East Coast.
Gabrielle is expected to have 45 mph sustained winds by this morning, peaking at about 50 mph in the afternoon, Caropolo said. The weather service warned that storm surge flooding of up to 3 feet was possible as the storm passed by, with 1 to 3 inches of rain falling in coastal areas and up to 5 inches in isolated spots.
"The greatest danger will be flooding in low-lying areas and on roads, such as Highway 12 on the Outer Banks," said North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley. "The most deaths during tropical storms occur when people drive into floodwaters and drown. Rip currents will be strong in the ocean. The safest place to be will be indoors."
Officials urged residents and visitors to the Outer Banks, a popular beach vacation spot, to get ready for the storm by securing loose items outside their homes and to remain indoors as Gabrielle blows through. The National Park Service closed all campgrounds on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
"Most people around here are pretty wise," said 74-year-old D.W. Harris, of Coastal Heights, Va., who has a vacation home on Roanoke Island. "They're not too worried about it."
Caropolo said the storm's greatest danger will come from rough seas, reaching 8 to 11 feet on the ocean side of the central Outer Banks, and rip currents along the shore.
"Only experienced swimmers should be in the water, but even then, with the high risk of a rip current, people should really just stay out of the water," he said. "Surfers love to stay out in the water, but they generally know what they're dealing with."
Gabrielle formed along an old frontal boundary that stalled about midway between the Southeast coast and Bermuda, drawing the attention of coastal residents for the past few days. It finally spun into a storm late Friday evening.
Gabrielle had initially formed as a subtropical storm, which is a hybrid system and typically weaker than hurricanes. They share the characteristics of tropical storms, which get their power from the warm ocean, as well as storms that form when warm and cold fronts collide.
The rain will be welcome in parched North Carolina, where nearly all the state's 100 counties are experiencing some form of drought. Easley asked Friday that all the state's local governments immediately enact voluntary or mandatory water restrictions.