With Hurricane Earl barreling toward the East Coast, President Obama signed a disaster declaration late Wednesday night for North Carolina, clearing the way for federal aid to help supplement state and local efforts and resources.
Earlier, both North Carolina and Virginia have declared states of emergency.
Coastal residents from the Carolinas as far north as Cape Cod are on high alert for Earl, which returned to Category 4 strength this afternoon, packing maximum sustained winds of 135 mph. Earl had been downgraded to Category 3. Officials said they expect "fluctuations" in the storm's force in the coming days.
No matter the label, Earl is expected to pack a wallop. The National Hurricane Center warned that Earl could send water rising 3 to 5 feet along coastal areas.
With Earl tracking northwest, North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue declared a state of emergency today, and officials have ordered mandatory evacuations in parts of the state. The storm could hit the North Carolina coastline by late Thursday.
The storm, 400 miles wide, is still forecast to skirt the eastern coastline, but state officials worry it could change its mind.
"There have been times when people have sworn to us that it's not going to touch us, and within three hours, it's right on top of us," Perdue said today.
Federal authorities are sending supplies in case of an emergency. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced this afternoon that 300,000 ready-to-eat meals as well as bottled water and generators are being sent to North Carolina in anticipation of an emergency response. The supplies are expected to arrive by Thursday. The Department of Health and Human Services also has two medical assistance teams already on standby in the state.
In Dare County, N.C., officials this morning ordered a mandatory evacuation for all visitors to Hatteras Island. This evening, they ordered the island's approximately 5,000 residents out, too.
Hyde County Manager David Smitherman ordered an evacuation this morning of Ocracoke Island, N.C., a barrier island accessible only by ferry.
In other parts of North Carolina, the chief of police ordered visitors to leave Atlantic Beach, and strongly suggested residents leave, as well.
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell also declared a state of emergency Wednesday in anticipation that Earl could shift and head for coastal communities as early as Thursday night.
"The current forecast has Hurricane Earl passing east of Virginia later this week. However, a change in the storm's path could bring hazardous weather conditions to eastern Virginia," McDonnell said in a statement. "This declaration is a precautionary move which will allow state agencies to be ready just in case resources are needed."
The state's coastline already is under a hurricane watch.
The emergency designation authorizes various state agencies, from the Virginia National Guard to the Department of Emergency Management, to "position resources and manpower" ahead of the storm.
The U.S. naval fleet in Norfolk, Va., is remaining in port, but is under orders to be ready to get underway within 24 hours if necessary.
The high winds and heavy rains are also expected to disrupt air traffic along the east coast through the Labor Day weekend, with many flights delayed and others canceled.