Upgraded from a tropical storm early Tuesday, Hurricane Alex (search) picked up strength and speed as it spun along the coast of North Carolina, but most of the storm-hardened residents of the Outer Banks didn't bother to board their windows.

Though it was expected to gain strength as it passes very near and likely brush the state's barrier islands later in the day, Alex is a lightweight by local standards.

But the weather service said any westward deviance from its current course could drag the hurricane's center across the coastline.

Sustained winds had reached nearly 80 mph early Tuesday and the storm was expected to drop as much as 5 inches of rain in some areas before moving back out to sea, according to National Weather Service (search) forecasts.

"I don't think it will get that bad," said Joyce Essick, a resident of Manteo since 1984 who stopped by a gas station to pick up bread and milk. "I was out of this stuff anyway, so I had to come get it either way."

Alex started as a tropical depression Saturday and, amid light steering currents, spun in place off the South Carolina coast most of Sunday. By midday Monday it began moving parallel to the coast of the Carolinas.

Officials were closely monitoring the storm, but don't consider it a major threat, said Dare County emergency management director Sandy Sanderson.

Dare County officials recommended that Hatteras Island residents stay off the road Tuesday afternoon as gusts reach hurricane force, said county spokeswoman Dorothy Toolan. "We expect gale force winds most of the day," she said.

Larry Shaffer of State College, Pa., vacationing at Ocean Isle Beach (search), just across the North Carolina state line, wasn't going to let brisk winds and rain drive away his family, who have vacationed there for 13 years.

"We've got the whole family here, including the kids and grandkids," said Shaffer, 63. "If it rains, the girls will go shopping and the rest of us will go out to eat."

Perhaps the biggest danger so far has been the rip currents, powerful channels of water that can draw swimmers out to sea, that threatened beach-goers all along the North Carolina coast while the storm was still hundreds of miles away.

At Wrightsville Beach, near Wilmington and the South Carolina border, ocean rescue captain Bud Woodrum said lifeguards pulled at least eight people out of the strong currents Monday.

Only two hurricane seasons on record have a first tropical depression forming later than July 31. But forecasters said a late start has no bearing on hurricane activity.