"It's a lot rougher out there, but this is what we look forward to every year," said Derek Creekmore, 32, of Chesapeake, Va., as he carried his surfboard into tall, breaking waves near Cape Hatteras. "We plan to stay out here until we get tired."
Although Gabrielle strengthened slightly Sunday morning, it was a weak tropical storm when its small center made landfall along the Cape Lookout National Seashore around 11:45 a.m.
Forecasters said Sunday afternoon it appeared that much of the rain concentrated well to the south of the storm's center will miss the parched inland coast.
"Some of it may work over towards Hatteras, but the bulk of the precipitation is going to remain just offshore," said James Wingenroth, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Newport.
While moving over Pamlico Sound on Sunday afternoon, Gabrielle was expected to take a sharp turn and reach Nags Head around sunset before heading back out into the Atlantic. At 5 p.m., the center of the storm was about 30 miles southwest of Kill Devil Hills, headed north near 12 mph. Its maximum sustained winds were close to 50 mph, with stronger gusts, and it was expected to weaken slightly in the next 12 hours.
Forecasters kept a tropical storm warning in effect for the North Carolina coastline north of Surf City through the Outer Banks and to the Virginia border. A tropical storm warning was also issued northward to Cape Charles Light, Va., along the Atlantic Coast, and a watch remains in effect for the area extending to New Point Comfort peninsula, along the Chesapeake Bay.
Officials mostly preached caution as they waited for Gabrielle to arrive at the vacation hotspot. While the National Park Service closed all campgrounds on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and Gov. Mike Easley put some swift water rescue teams and National Guard units on standby, officials didn't order any evacuations.
"It's going to be a good day to stay inside, if at all possible," said Dorothy Toolan, a spokeswoman for Dare County. "We certainly don't advise people to go into the ocean, because the rip currants are so severe, and we hope by now that people have made their preparations and secured any loose items around their homes."
That's what Kevin Conner, 40, did Sunday, lifting electronics and other valuables off the floor of his Hatteras home, which suffered tens of thousands dollars in flood damage when Hurricane Alex washed ashore in 2004. But afterward, as the storm approached, he still made a trip to the nearby beach.
"There is a price to pay for living in paradise, and this is it," Conner said, pointing into the wind at the incoming storm. "But it shouldn't be bad. We plan on going about our day as usual."
Gabrielle spun into the storm late Friday after wandering in the Atlantic for several days, caught along an old frontal boundary that stalled about midway between the Southeast coast and Bermuda. Forecasters first labeled it a subtropical storm a hybrid system that takes power from warm ocean waters but also forms from warm and cold fronts colliding before classifying it a tropical system Saturday.
Forecasters said the storm's greatest danger would likely come from rough seas and rip currents along the shore, which started causing problems Saturday. But officials in Dare, Hyde and Currituck counties, which cover most of the Outer Banks, said Sunday they had no reports of any water rescues tied to Gabrielle.
"This has given us a little practice run for hurricanes," said Currituck County spokeswoman Diane Sawyer. "You don't wish to have a storm, but if you have to have one it's a good one to have. It looks like we're going to be lucky."
Forecasters said the storm could produce a storm surge of up to 3 feet, with 1 to 3 inches of rain falling in coastal areas and up to 5 inches in isolated spots. Some ocean overwash on N.C. 12 the main road along the Outer Banks and beach erosion were also expected.
Any rain will be welcome in North Carolina, where all 100 counties are facing drought conditions 91 in a severe drought or worse. Easley asked Friday that the state's local governments immediately enact voluntary or mandatory water restrictions.
"If there's no damage from tornadoes and high winds and we get a little bit of rain off of this, then the rain would be a good thing to replenish some of the water supplies, streams and reservoirs in the eastern part of the state," said Renee Hoffman, the governor's spokeswoman.