Visitors abandon vacations as Maria churns near Carolinas

Thousands of visitors have abandoned their vacation plans and left North Carolina's Outer Banks ahead of Hurricane Maria as it moves northward in the Atlantic, churning up surf and bringing the possibility of flooding.

The hurricane that battered the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico last week has weakened slightly with maximum sustained winds Tuesday morning near 75 mph (120 kph). The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Maria is expected to keep gradually weakening and is forecast to become a tropical storm Tuesday night or Wednesday.

In North Carolina, officials estimated more than 10,000 people had left two barrier islands jutting into the Atlantic where visitors were ordered to evacuate. Dare County Emergency Management Director Drew Pearson said it was hard to determine exactly how many people had left Hatteras Island. But Pearson said officials think between 10,000 and 12,500 people were leaving. About 500 people live at Hatteras year-round and were not required to leave.

Schools were closed Tuesday in Dare County because of the storm conditions.

Hyde County officials said they had about 700 visitors when the evacuation was issued at Ocracoke Island, which has about 1,000 permanent residents. By Monday morning, about 225 visitors had left.

Authorities warned that high winds and flooding were possible threats as Maria passed well offshore.

Tourists packed up and drove off Monday — some after only one day of what was supposed to be a weeklong vacation.

On Hatteras, Jay Wrenn and his wife packed up their car for the five-hour drive back home to Burlington, North Carolina.

They had arrived at their rented cottage in Rodanthe on Sunday with a week's worth of groceries. By noon Monday the macaroni salad they had made was in the trash.

Meanwhile, business owners braced for what they said would be yet another financial hit this season. A construction accident at the peak of tourist season in late July cut power to Ocracoke and Hatteras for several days, resulting in the evacuation of an estimated 50,000 tourists. Businesses lost millions of dollars.

The storm was centered about 210 miles (340 kilometers) southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, Tuesday morning and was moving north at 7 mph (11 kph). A tropical storm warning was in effect for a swath of the North Carolina coast from Bogue Inlet to the Virginia border.

Maria hit Puerto Rico as a major Category 4 hurricane and claimed dozens of lives in its rampage across the Caribbean.