Hurricane Earl passed east of North Carolina's Outer Banks this evening, sending bands of wind and rain raking over the North Carolina coast.
Though it was downgraded this evening to a Category 2 storm and forecast to weaken slowly as it moved northward, officials up and down the East Coast still were bracing for a powerful punch.
By 11 p.m. ET, Earl was about 115 miles south-southeast of Cape Hatteras, N.C., according to the National Hurricane Center (NOAA). The eye of the storm was expected to stay offshore for now.
President Obama signed an emergency disaster declaration for Massachusetts late Thursday. Earlier, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick declared a state of emergency ahead of the storm after officials extended a hurricane warning to the state's southern coast. He said the declaration will help Massachusetts respond to the storm, expected to pass the area late Friday into Saturday.
Rhode Island Gov. Donald Carcieri made a similar emergency declaration, The Associated Press reported.
In neighboring Connecticut, Gov. M. Jodi Rell asked President Obama to issue a pre-landfall declaration of emergency to ensure federal funding help with the storm response.
At 11 p.m., tropical storm warnings or watches were extended up the Massachussetts and Maine coasts and into Canada, according to NOAA.
Watch "World News with Diane Sawyer" for the latest on Earl tonight on ABC.
As of this evening, the storm was nearly 400 miles wide, tracking northward at 18 mph. With its maximum sustained winds up to 105 miles per hour at around 11 p.m., Earl was not as strong as it was this morning, when 145 mph winds made it a powerful Category 4 storm.
"The intensity of the storm is expected to weaken," Bill Reid of the National Hurricane Center told ABC's Diane Sawyer tonight on "World News." "And the winds will start spreading out into a larger and larger area."
The National Hurricane Center also is watching other storms following Earl, including Fiona and Gaston, which is most likely a concern for next week.
President Obama is "closely monitoring" the situation and "aggressively preparing" for Earl's potential impact, the White House said today.
Late Wednesday night, Obama signed a pre-landfall emergency declaration for North Carolina, clearing the way for federal aid to help supplement state and local efforts and resources.
Already, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has sent supplies to North Carolina and Massachusetts. Roughly 400,000 liters of water, 300,000 meals, and 54 generators have been dispatched to Ft. Bragg, N.C., while over 200,000 meals and 162,000 liters of water have been sent to Westover, Mass.
The American Red Cross has dispatched more than 350 disaster workers to North Carolina, Massachusetts and Rhode Island to staff shelters.
Hurricane Warnings Throughout Northeast
This morning, forecasters expanded a hurricane warning to parts of southern Bristol and Plymouth counties in Massachusetts. The forecasters on Wednesday issued the warning for Cape Cod and neighboring islands.
On Wednesday, both North Carolina and Virginia declared states of emergency, and officials ordered mandatory evacuations in parts of the state.
In Dare County, N.C., officials Wednesday ordered a mandatory evacuation of Hatteras Island. Hyde County Manager David Smitherman ordered an evacuation of Ocracoke Island, N.C., a barrier island accessible only by ferry. Police ordered visitors to leave Atlantic Beach, N.C., and strongly suggested residents leave, as well.
North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue urged stragglers to evacuate today.
"If you're on the Outer Banks ... you still have time to leave the Banks and you still have time to get to a safer place," she said.
Residents who decided to ride out the storm were today expressing their concerns about potential flooding, flying debris and loss of electricity.
"We're pretty scared," said Randy Jefferson. "We're doing what we can to make sure we're fine."
Hurricane Earl Brings Rough Surf and Concern
The surf was rough in Wrightsville, N.C., and tourists in the area were told to leave.
"It seemed like the waves were getting more aggressive and the riptide out was getting much stronger," said Mike Hoekema of Indiana.
In Atlantic Beach, N.C., Herb and Cindy Utter are not taking any chances.
"It was a 75 mph hour wind," Herb Utter said. "I thought the house was gonna blow down."
The couple moved furniture at their beach house indoors and prepared to head inland with memories of storms past fresh in their minds.
"Mother nature is powerful when she wants to be, and we can't beat it," Cindy Utter said. "So pay attention and take precautions."
State of Emergency in Virginia
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 prepared 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 was 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.
Long Island and Cape Cod Residents Brace For Earl's Impact
In Montauk, on New York's Long Island, residents fear damage to boats and beaches, and local officials are preparing for the worst of Earl's wrath.
"I know what's going to happen. This beach is gonna be gone," said Bill Wilkinson, East Hampton, N.Y., town supervisor.
In the huge Hurricane of 1938, the surge was enough to sever the tip of Long Island and left an estimated 700 dead.
In 1991, Hurricane Bob hit the Northeast and killed 18 people.
In New Jersey, locals already are battling the sea.
Lifeguards have been forced to save dozens of people.
To the north, on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, residents are snapping up batteries. On the island of Nantucket, Mass., it's a frantic battle to save homes.
On "Good Morning America" Wednesday, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate advised residents along the East Coast, and particularly those people visiting from out of town, to have a disaster plan in place and heed evacuation orders.
"You need to make sure you know where to go when you need to go," he said.
Storm Disrupts Air Travel
With Earl approaching so close to the coastline, nearly the entire East Coast is threatened.
Delta began cancelling flights today, and the storm was expected to force further delays and cancelations for airlines along the coast. Most of the major airlines are waiving fees so passengers at potentially impacted airports can rebook their flights for a later date. Thus far, refunds only are available if a flight has been canceled.
Links to specific airlines for more information can be found below.
ABC's Michael S. James, Gerard McNiff, Steve Osunsami, Bradley Blackburn and Lee Ferran contributed to this report.
Residents can monitor the hurricane's location on the National Hurricane Center's website.
Information on cancellations and refunds for airlines follows:
Delta American United Continental US Airways Southwest JetBlue AirTran Virgin America Spirit