Aug. 31, 2010 -- Americans from the Carolinas to Cape Cod already are bracing for the arrival of Hurricane Earl, which could be the worst hurricane to hit the area in almost 20 years.
Hurricane watches have been issued for most of the North Carolina coast as the storm barrels closer and gains strength.
On Tuesday, officials in Hyde County, N.C., planned to declare a state of emergency ahead of Hurricane Earl, according to County Manager David Smitherman, and ordered an evacuation Wednesday of Ocracoke Island, a barrier island accessible only by ferry.
The state of emergency affects about 5,700 people in the county and allows officials to call upon additional resources as the storm approaches, Smitherman said.
The powerful category 4 storm was north of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic Tuesday evening, but the latest forecast track showed it moving further west, then up the East Coast this week.
By Thursday night, the storm could pose a significant threat to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and it could affect eastern Long Island, N.Y., and eastern New England by Friday night, into Saturday morning.
Watch "World News with Diane Sawyer" for the latest on Hurricane Earl tonight on ABC.
Earl had 135 mph winds Tuesday evening, with gusts as high as 160 mph. Though the eye of the storm was expected to remain offshore, strong winds and driving rain were expected to extend anywhere from 150 to 200 miles from the center, forecasters said.
Winds of 40 to 70 mph were possible in eastern North Carolina as the storm passed, and on Cape Cod and Nantucket, winds could reach hurricane strength of 70 to 80 mph.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was sending resources to the Carolinas and urging local officials to make evacuation decisions before it is too late.
At hardware stores, there was brisk business as local residents picked up supplies from batteries and plywood to lanterns and portable TVs.
With the storm threatening right before Labor Day weekend, some businesses feared that Earl has already hit the Carolinas' economy.
"It's going to be bad. It's going to kill us," said Rich Cole, manager of the Crab Claw restaurant in Atlantic Beach, N.C. "Everyone who would be coming to Atlantic Beach this weekend is seeing this forecast."
Major population centers up the East Coast were expected to be largely spared by the storm, though New York and Boston might expect strong wind gusts. Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., were not expected to experience extreme weather.
On "Good Morning America" Tuesday, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate advised residents along the East Coast, particularly those in the Carolinas, to mind the storm, have a plan and to be prepared to evacuate if necessary.
"We don't want people to be caught by surprise," he said.
Hurricane Earl Lashes Caribbean
While East Coast residents could feel Earl's wrath within 48 hours, the hurricane already has torn through the Caribbean with winds up to 135 miles per hour.
Strong winds flipped over an airplane and tore the roofs off homes in Puerto Rico.
In St. Kitts, waves continued to pound the shoreline as residents used barriers of sandbags to protect their homes.
High winds in St. Martin toppled trees and split some in half, and a once popular fishing port in Virgin Gorda was destroyed.
In Antigua, fallen trees blocked roads and homes were flooded as nearby rivers overflowed.
"A couple boats sank. There was a lot of wind and a lot of rain ... a lot of the streets are flooded, a lot of the villages are flooded out," said Atiba Warner, who witnessed the unfolding scene in Antigua.
ABC's Steve Osunsami and Bradley Blackburn contributed to this report.
Residents can monitor the hurricane's location on the National Hurricane Center's website.