Forecasters expected the storm to increase its wind speed slightly - but not to hurricane levels - before swiping the Outer Banks, a chain of barrier islands popular with tourists, on Sunday. After a brief landfall, Gabrielle was expected to take a sharp turn back into the Atlantic, the National Weather Service said.
"All things considered, it's a pretty weak storm," said Casey Quell, a NWS forecaster in Morehead City. "More than anything, it will bring some much-needed rain."
The storm carried top sustained winds of about 40 mph as of 2 a.m. Sunday, the National Weather Service reported. But those winds could strengthen to near 50 mph as Gabrielle nears the coast, according to the weather service.
Gabrielle's center was located about 85 miles south-southeast of Cape Lookout and was moving slowly - about 11 mph - to the north-northwest.
Forecasters issued a tropical storm warning for some coastal areas of North Carolina and Virginia
Local officials urged residents and visitors at the vacation hotspot to secure loose items and to stay indoors as the storm blows through. The National Park Service closed all campgrounds on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. But they did not ask or recommend that people leave the islands.
"When people hear about tropical storms, they assume houses are going to fall in the ocean," said Margot Jolly, a lifeguard with Nags Heads Ocean Rescue. "They shouldn't overreact like that. Just relax, stay inside, and have a little hurricane party."
For most local residents, however, Gabrielle is likely to bring them some much-needed rain, reports CBS Affiliate WRAL. The towns along the Outer Banks are about 19 inches below the normal rainfall.
Both Wake County and Dare County are suffering from drought conditions.
Gabrielle's first showers reached the coastline late Saturday night. Quell 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.
Rip currents had already caused problems Saturday. David Baker, the Ocean Rescue director for the Wrightsville Beach Fire Department about 150 miles south of Nags Head, told The Star-News of Wilmington that lifeguards rescued about a dozen people from the water because of rip currents.
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.