WEATHER -- September 1, 2010 at 2:28 PM ET
East Coast Watches Earl's Approach
Hurricane Earl, Sept 1, 2010 (NOAA)
Updated 5:30p.m. ET
Forecasters announced late Wednesday that Hurricane Earl has become a Category 4 storm.
Posted 2:30p.m. ET
The big question facing hurricane watchers is not whether Hurricane Earl will change its course and head northeast, but when. If the turn comes later than expected, then the eye of the storm could make landfall directly onto the far eastern tip of North Carolina.
"Any delay in that turn would bring a higher tropical storm and even hurricane-force winds to the outer banks," National Hurricane Center Director Bill Read said Wednesday afternoon.
The Hurricane is now barreling over open waters east of the Bahamas with winds as high as 125 miles per hour. Read says he expects Earl to veer northeast late Thursday, and most likely skirt the east coast, remaining about 150 to 200 miles offshore.
But storm preparations are being made along the Atlantic seaboard in the event that it does strike land. Most of the Carolina coast is under storm watch, especially the outer banks and the barrier islands. Evacuations of the barrier islands are under way and federal authorities are moving water, food, generators and other supplies to the area, in case they are needed after the storm.
Hurricane-force winds could also reach Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket or New York's Long Island. Heavy rain and tropical-storm gusts are likely along the entire East Coast as the storm moves north.
At a minimum, Earl will cause strong northeasterly winds, large waves, rip currents and possibly power outages all along the coast, Read said. High surf and coastal erosion are likely anywhere on the coastline from the Carolinas northward.
FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate advises families to "build flexibility" into their vacation plans. Trips may have to be postponed or delayed. Coastal areas may be evacuated.
The National Hurricane Center is keeping an eye on two other storms. Fiona, a tropical storm, is forecast to move in a northwestern direction, slightly east of Earl's path. They're also watching a new depression that may become "Gaston."