The last ferry left for the mainland and residents took shelter as Hurricane Earl closed in on North Carolina's dangerously exposed Outer Banks with 105mph winds.
It was the first and perhaps most destructive stop on the storm's projected journey up America's East Coast.
Gusts above 40mph made signs shake and the heavy rain fall sideways in Buxton, the south-easternmost tip of the Outer Banks.
Hurricane Earl's winds were slowing from 140mph to 105 mph, Category 2 strength, by early on Friday. But forecasters warned that it remained powerful, with hurricane-force winds of 74mph or more extending 70 miles from its centre and tropical storm-force winds of at least 35mph, reaching more than 200 miles out.
National Weather Service meteorologist Hal Austin said the eye of the hurricane was expected to get as close as 55 miles east of the Outer Banks. The coast was expected to be lashed by hurricane-force winds for a couple of hours with a storm surge of up to five feet and waves 18 feet high.
Earl's arrival could mark the start of at least 24 hours of stormy, windy weather along the East Coast. During its march up the Atlantic, it could scupper travellers' weekend plans for the Labour Day holiday and strike a second forceful blow to the holiday homes and cottages on Long Island, Nantucket Island and Cape Cod.
Forecast models showed the most likely place Earl would make landfall was western Nova Scotia, Canada, where it could still be a hurricane, said hurricane centre deputy director Ed Rappaport.
Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Craig Fugate said people should not wait for the next forecast to act. "This is a day of action. Conditions are going to deteriorate rapidly," he said.
Shelters were open in inland North Carolina and officials on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, planned to set up a shelter at a high school. North Carolina shut down ferry services between the Outer Banks and the mainland, boats were being pulled from the water in the North East, and lobstermen in Maine set their traps out in deeper water to protect them.
Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick and Rhode Island governor. Donald Carcieri declared a state of emergency. Similar declarations were also made in North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland.