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Ocracoke Island cleared as hurricane nears

Tourists on a holiday island in North Carolina were ordered to board ferries and head for the mainland today as powerful Hurricane Earl threatened to sideswipe the US East Coast.

Hyde County emergency officials said the evacuation of Ocracoke Island would start at 5am for about 5,000 visitors. The 800 or so year-round residents did not have to heed it, but Emergency Services Director Lindsey Mooney said officials hoped they would follow tourists on the two and a half hour trip to shore.

"I don't remember the last time there was a mandatory evacuation order for the island," Hyde County Commissioner Kenneth Collier said.

More evacuations along the Eastern Seaboard could follow, depending on the path taken by the Category 4 storm, which was whipping across the Caribbean with winds of 135mph (217kph).

Earl was expected to remain over the open ocean before turning north and running parallel to the East Coast, bringing high winds and heavy rain to North Carolina's Outer Banks by late tomorrow or early Friday.

From there, forecasters said, it could curve away from the coast somewhat as it makes it way north, perhaps hitting Massachusetts' Cape Cod and the Maine shoreline on Friday night and Saturday.

Forecasters cautioned that it was still too early to tell how close Earl might come to land. But not since Hurricane Bob in 1991 has such a powerful storm had such a large swathe of the East Coast in its sights, said Dennis Feltgen, spokesman for the National Hurricane Centre.

"A slight shift of that track to the west is going to impact a great deal of real estate with potential hurricane-force winds," Mr Feltgen said.

Virginia's governor planned to declare an emergency today, a preliminary step needed to muster emergency personnel should Earl hit the state.

Yesterday, gusty winds from Earl's outer fringes whipped palm fronds and whistled through doors in the Turks and Caicos Islands as tied-down boats seesawed on white-crested surf.

Islanders gathered to watch big waves pound a Grand Turk shore as the wind sent sand and salt spray flying.

"We can hear the waves crashing against the reef really seriously," Kirk Graff, owner of the Captain Kirks Flamingo Cove Marina, said by telephone as he watched the darkening skies.

"Anybody who hasn't secured their boats by now is going to regret it."