A low-pressure system off the Southeast coast could turn into a tropical depression Thursday, but hurricane hunters who flew into the system Wednesday found it didn't quite have the right stuff.

Either way, the system will bring strong winds, coastal flooding, high surf, and dangerous rip currents to big chunks of the East Coast over the next couple of days, the National Hurricane Center said.

The low pressure system centered about 250 miles southeast of Wilmington "has not acquired tropical characteristics" as of Wednesday's flight, but the system had the potential to turn into a named storm on Thursday as it drifted westward toward the East Coast, the hurricane center in Miami said.

"They didn't find any a warm core, so at this time they are not going to call it a tropical system," said Robert Digiorgi, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Wilmington.

The storm was expected to hit North Carolina's coastline with 40 mph wind gusts and several inches of rain, forecasters said.

Gale warnings were posted for most of the Southeast coast from Florida to north of Maryland. Forecasters also issued a hurricane force wind warning, meaning ships more than 20 miles out at sea could expect winds of 65 mph or more.

Strong winds from the wide-reaching storm were expected to whip well inland in some places, gusting to as high as 45 mph and threatening to spin off tornadoes across the eastern third of North Carolina on Thursday, the weather service said.

But along the North and South Carolina coast, some seasoned residents said the storm was a typical blast that kicked up waves and kept most boats tied to their docks.

"Nobody's fishing. The ocean's too choppy. Solid whitecaps. The wind's ripping," said Ocracoke Island charter captain Dave Nagel. "It's just a regular old nor'easter."

Nagel said he saw a few larger commercial fishing boats heading out of the island's harbor to try to get their nets and tides in the sounds between barrier islands and the mainland were coming over the bank, "but they're not extreme."

Officials closed Highway 12 on Hatteras Island between Oregon Inlet and Rodanthe because of ocean over-wash and sand on the highway.

In Charleston, S.C., Dustin Ryan, part-owner and captain of Charleston Sailing Charters, said he was staying close to port and hoping for good weather by Friday.

"It makes for a restless night on a boat if you're sleeping in the marina, but that's about it," Ryan said.

In Annapolis, Md., city officials were offering sandbags to prepare for the possibility of flooding in the low-lying City Dock area. They will likely be available through Friday.