Published: Sep 03, 2010 11:42 AM EDT
Updated: Sep 03, 2010 8:42 AM EDT

BUXTON, N.C. (AP) - Hurricane Earl churned past the North Carolina Outer Banks and its powerful gusts and driving rains were starting to be felt in southeastern Virginia early Friday, the beginning of at least 24 hours of stormy, windy weather along the East Coast.

Residents and officials of North Carolina's barrier islands were waiting for daybreak to see how much damage the storm's winds and waves had left behind. But National Weather Service meteorologist Chris Collins said Earl had produced little storm surge and only minor flooding in some coastal counties. Predictions of storm surges between 2 and 4 feet may be too much, he said.

Earl had weakened all day Thursday, winding down from a Category 4 storm with winds of 140 mph to a Category 2 storm with winds of 105 mph. But it still packed enough of a punch to send rain sideways and shake signs in Buxton, the southeasternmost tip of the Outer Banks. And the National Hurricane Center expected Earl to remain a large hurricane as it approached southeastern New England.

A tropical storm warning was issued early Friday for the coast of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island in Canada.

In Nags Heads, with the eye the closest it was expected to get to the North Carolina coast, the rain lashed against window panes and the wind kicked up. At about 2 a.m., the tops of small trees were bending in the howling gusts and beach grass was whipping back and forth on dunes leading to the ocean. A couple hundred power outages were reported.

While more than 30,000 residents and visitors were ordered to leave the Outer Banks, more hardy residents gassed up their generators and hunkered at home behind their boarded-up windows, even though officials warned them that it could be three days before they could expect any help.

"It's kind of nerve-racking, but I've been through this before," said 65-year-old Herma De Gier, who has lived in the village of Avon since 1984. De Gier said she will ride out the storm at a neighbor's house but wants to be close enough to her own property so she can quickly deal with any damage.

The eye of the hurricane was expected to get only about 100 miles east of the Outer Banks, not any closer, said Collins.

During its march up the Atlantic, it could snarl travelers' Labor Day weekend plans with several flights already canceled. Forecasters said that a kink in the jetstream over the eastern U.S. should push the storm away from the coast, guiding it like a marble in a groove. Earl is expected to move north-northeast for much of Friday, staying away from New Jersey and the other mid-Atlantic states, but also passing very close to Long Island, Cape Cod and Nantucket, which could get gusts up to 100 mph.

The most likely place Earl will make landfall is on Saturday in western Nova Scotia, Canada, where it could still be a hurricane, said hurricane center deputy director Ed Rappaport.

Federal, state and local authorities were waiting for daylight to begin patrolling the North Carolina coast to check for damage. The Coast Guard planned to fly over the exposed barrier islands and was prepared for search-and-rescue helicopter flights.

The emergency management chief for one coastal North Carolina county said that high tide and the storm combined to wash over a portion of the Outer Banks highway N.C. 12 near Rodanthe. Dare County Emergency Management Director Sandy Sanderson said it was closed, but that the overwash was expected and nobody was out driving in the storm, anyway.

In Buxton, a two-story Comfort Inn had become a makeshift hurricane hostel for those who want to stay close to their homes but know they need better shelter.

Billy Parker, 55, chose to stay so he could keep an eye on his treasured property, but wasn't taking any chances with his family. He sent his wife, mother-in-law and two daughters to Elizabeth City - two and a half hours away on the mainland.

"I don't want them here," Parker said. "I'd fear for their lives."

Most of the hotel guests said they would rather get trapped on Hatteras Island than off it and prepared themselves for weeks without contact with the outside world.

Farther up the coast, governors in Massachusetts and Rhode Island declared states of emergency, joining North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick urged people living in ow-lying areas prone to flooding to consider leaving their homes by Friday afternoon, although no officials evacuations had been announced outside of North Carolina. Officials on Nantucket Island, Mass., planned to set up a shelter at a high school on Friday.

"We're asking everyone: Don't panic," Patrick said. "We have prepared well, we are coordinated well, and I'm confident that we've done everything that we can."

Much of New England should expect strong, gusty winds much like a nor'easter, along with fallen trees and downed power lines, forecasters said.

"This is the strongest hurricane to threaten the Northeast and New England since Hurricane Bob in 1991," said Dennis Feltgen, a meteorologist with the National Hurricane Center.

In New York City, officials were on alert but said they expected to see only side effects of the storm - mostly rain and high winds, with possible soil erosion on the beaches and flooding along the oceanside coasts of Brooklyn and Queens.

"It's going to stay out in the open water, but we're going to have some effects here," said Joseph Bruno, commissioner of the city's Office of Emergency Management.

The National Hurricane Center said Earl will keep chugging to the northeast, eventually striking western Nova Scotia, Canada, where it could still be a hurricane.