Arthur strengthens to become season’s first hurricane

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(CNN) — Canceled. Rescheduled. As Hurricane Arthur gyrates up the East Coast, beachfront Fourth of July celebrations are falling flat — and that could save lives, if it keeps revelers out of the water.

The Atlantic storm graduated early Thursday from a tropical storm to become the first hurricane of the season, the National Weather Service said.

Its maximum sustained wind speeds reached 75 mph as it spun off the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina, heading toward the North Carolina shoreline.

Even if Arthur goes down in weather history as a softie of a cyclone, it could still shake some lethal tricks out of its sleeve: Rip currents.

Death in the surf

The rapid flows of water from the shore back out to the ocean are the biggest danger at the beach, the weather service says. They lurk beneath the waves and are hard for swimmers to spot.

Tropical cyclones killed six people in 2009, the National Weather Service said — and all of them drowned in large waves or rip currents produced by their storm surges.

Anyone in North Carolina should stay out of the ocean, CNN meteorologist Chad Myers warned.

“There’s no time for you to react. That’s why you can’t be there at all,” he said.

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory agreed. He tells those who plan to hit the beaches: “Don’t put your stupid hat on.” Stay out of the ocean.

“I don’t want you to put at risk not only yourself, but also people who may try to help you, especially our emergency operation workers,” he said at a press conference.

The cyclones that spawn the treacherous flows that haul victims away from land can be far out of sight and mind.

In 2008, one storm drowned three people from half an ocean away. Hurricane Bertha was 1,000 miles from the New Jersey shore when it generated fatal rip currents.

At Ocean City, Maryland, the back-flowing water from Bertha triggered 1,500 lifeguard rescues in one week’s time.

Lucky survivor

Rip currents are caused by storm surges, which push water up onto the beach.

“That volume of the water that’s coming in has to return to the sea somehow,” lifeguard Mike Taylor tells CNN affiliate WSAV.

It flows back out with mighty force but is very hard to see.

The weather service publishes a page of the stories people have told after surviving a rip current.

Three summers ago, a surfer named Greg watched his wife, standing on a North Carolina beach, get smaller and smaller as a rip current swept him away.

He fought it.

“I tried to swim with the boogie board at first, but if you’ve ever tried to do that, you know that won’t work,” he said.

Luckily, he remembered what to do. He swam parallel to the shoreline until he was out of the current. Then he paddled for the beach. He was so exhausted when he arrived, he collapsed onto the sand.

“I kissed the ground,” he said.

Carefree attitude

On a pier at Atlantic Beach, North Carolina, on Wednesday, a sign read: “No lifeguard on duty.” Gulls hovered over anglers and beachgoers listened to waves gently crashing, as the sun browned their skins.

Few seemed worried about Arthur.

A shirtless beachcomber in a broad-brimmed straw hat was downright adventurous about its approach.

“I’ve lived long enough to know that new experiences are always fun, so you’ve got to live them. And this might really be fun and might be scary, but we’re going to find out after a while,” he said.

The town of Surf City, right on the Atlantic, is scrapping its Fourth of July show, which was scheduled for Thursday. Arthur’s anticipated wind and showers spoiled the party.

But the city’s website also said the storm’s fury is likely to be short-lived and encouraged visitors to keep their beach vacation plans: “Surf City is very much open for business.”

The holiday is an important time for businesses on the coast, one owner in a neighboring state said. The income pads them, helps them survive.

But vacationers should not take the warm welcome as an all-clear. To avoid tragedy, they should stay on land.

Surge and evacuation

Storm surges can also cause flooding, and Arthur is expected to push the water level 2 to 4 feet higher than normal at North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

“The surge will be accompanied by large and damaging waves,” the weather service said.

Authorities issued a mandatory evacuation order for Hatteras Island and a voluntary evacuation order for Ocracoke Island.

When a storm hits, it’s hard to get off the low-lying Outer Banks by car.

And traveling in the driving rain is dangerous, no matter which storm causes it. Forecasters said Arthur will dump 2 to 4 inches on most parts of the coastline and up to 6 inches in isolated spots.

Keeping the Boston Pops dry

Rain will fall on parts of New England on Friday, and the annual Fourth of July Boston Pops concert is being moved up a day to Thursday to dodge it.

If it rains then, the fireworks part of the show can start, but the concert may have to go, to escape the wet, event organizer Rich MacDonald told CNN affiliate WCVB. “It affects the instruments, and these instruments are valuable and old.”

In the nation’s capital, the weather looks cheerier for the holiday.

The slight chance of rain during the day Friday will vanish by night.

Then the “rockets’ red glare” will take to a mostly clear sky, “bursting in air” over Washington’s National Mall, where the colorful firework blossoms will shine in the Reflecting Pool for a large crowd of patriots.

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