Arthur strengthened to a hurricane early Thursday, taking aim at North Carolina's thin ribbon of barrier islands before the Fourth of July holiday.

A mandatory evacuation of Hatteras Island along the Outer Banks began at 5 a.m., about the time the National Hurricane Center upgraded the slow-moving tropical storm to hurricane status. Now no one is allowed on the island.

"We were just saying we were really, really lucky this year that the weather was so great, and then this," said Nichole Specht, 27, who ended a two-week vacation with her fiance, Ryan Witman, 28. They left Hatteras Island at 3:30 a.m. to beat the traffic.

Forecasters expect Arthur to whip past the Outer Banks — a 200-mile string of narrow barrier islands with about 57,000 permanent residents — late Thursday or early Friday without making landfall but still bringing rain, heavy winds, storm surge and dangerous rip tides. At 8 a.m. ET, the storm was about 125 miles off the coast of Savannah, Ga.; hurricane-force winds of 80 mph extended 25 miles from the center and tropical storm force winds extended 90 mph from the eye.

Before the storm, tourism officials had expected 250,000 people to travel to the Outer Banks for the holiday weekend. North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory warned people not to risk their safety by trying to salvage their picnics, barbecues and pre-paid beach cottage vacations.

"Don't put your stupid hat on," McCrory said.

Arthur is expected to pick up speed — it's now moving at about 9 mph — and be off the coast of New England later Friday, making landfall in Canada's maritime provinces as a tropical storm.

Outer Banks residents and out-of-town visitors who fail to evacuate ahead of the hurricane's expected arrival should prepare for possibly getting stuck for several days without food, water or power, forecaster Stacy Stewart of the National Hurricane Center said Thursday.

"We want the public to take this system very seriously," he said.

Hurricane Arthur is expected to bring high winds, rough seas, dangerous rip currents and possible flooding on North Carolina 12. The two-lane highway is the only way on and off Hatteras Island other than ferries to the south, and twice in recent years, storm-driven waves have rendered the road impassable.

The National Hurricane Center has issued a hurricane warning Surf City, N.C., about 35 miles northeast of Wilmington, N.C., northward to the North Carolina-Virginia border. Rainfall of 2 to 4 inches is expected with some areas getting as much as 6 inches in a brief time.

The Outer Banks could get as much as 4 feet of storm surge if Arthur strikes at high tide, forecasters said. Southeastern Virginia could get a 2-foot storm surge.

But many people planned to continue their trips or ride out the storm.

Mike Rabe of Virginia Beach, Va, planned to stay in his Outer Banks beach home the entire weekend. He and his wife, Jan, arrived Wednesday and set to work stowing lawn furniture and anything else that could be tossed about. He said he would spend Thursday helping a friend and longtime resident get his water sports shop and campground ready for bad weather.

"I'm going to help him prepare and then I'm going to ride it out," said Rabe, 53.

The holiday weekend was not expected to be a complete loss along the Atlantic Coast. Forecasters said the storm would move through quickly with the worst of the weather near Cape Hatteras about dawn Friday. Then it was expected to clear.

In Boston, the annual July 4th Boston Pops concert

and fireworks display was advanced by a day to Thursday evening because of the threat of severe weather Friday from the storm. While forecasters say it's too early to tell exactly where the storm will be for the holiday, fireworks plans could be shelved from Cape Cod to the mid-Atlantic coast.

Contributing: William M. Welch, USA TODAY; The Associated Press, WCNC-TV, Charlotte, Florida Today and The Fort Myers (Fla.) News-Press

2014 Atlantic hurricane season names

The National Hurricane Center, which has been naming Atlantic tropical storms since 1953, has created a list of 21 names per year through 2019. Here are this year's names:

• Arthur

• Bertha

• Cristobal

• Dolly

• Edouard

• Fay

• Gonzalo

• Hanna

• Isaias

• Josephine

• Kyle

• Laura

• Marco

• Nana

• Omar

• Paulette

• Rene

• Sally

• Teddy

• Vicky

• Wilfred

Source: National Hurricane Center