SEBASTIAN INLET, Fla. — The first tropical storm of the 2014 Atlantic Hurricane Season is getting stronger Tuesday and could affect the Carolinas as a hurricane by Thursday.
Tropical Depression One formed late Monday night as it crawled off of Florida's east coast at 2 mph. The system is continuing to drift slowly but now is moving with maximum sustained winds of 50 mph, and tropical-storm-force winds extend 70 miles from its center.
"Some spots may pick up around 5 inches (of rain) if they get hit with the squalls," but rainfall is more likely to be 1 to 3 inches, said Tony Cristaldi, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Melbourne, Fla. Tropical Storm Arthur's winds are expected to be 20 to 30 mph on shore in this area and could bring a foot or two of beach erosion.
The storm, located about 85 miles southeast of Cape Canaveral, is expected to pass the area about 60 miles offshore, according to the National Hurricane Center's 5 p.m. ET advisory.
A tropical storm watch has been issued for the coast of east-central Florida from Fort Pierce north to Flagler Beach, which means that conditions are likely for the storm within 24 to 26 hours. But the hurricane center is urging those as far north as Virginia Beach to monitor the storm's path.
When a small storm starts to churn the waters offshore, diehard surfers often head to the beach. But forecasters are warning beachgoers of possible rip currents.
"There's fairly strong southward-flowing long shore current," Cristaldi said. "And when you have strong winds with a system and it kind of generates some swell, you tend to get an increase in rip current activity."
Surf forecaster Bob Freeman of Cocoa Beach, Fla., said waves will be waist high with some bigger peaks but will be very rough. Wednesday will be safer because the storm system will be moving away from the central Florida coast by then, but he still expects to see waist-high waves until Friday.
Near the storm, 19 ill crew members were evacuated from a South Korean cargo ship after they showed signs of food poisoning. The cargo ship JS Comet was anchored 3 miles off Cape Canaveral, and the Coast Guard reported that deteriorating weather conditions were one factor in the decision to evacuate.
On North Carolina's Outer Banks, officials said they would close Cape Lookout National Seashore at 5 p.m. Wednesday and reopen when it's safe.
The motel Shutters on the Banks in Kill Devil Hills, N.C., was booked for the holiday weekend despite forecasts for potentially heavy rain, gusty winds and isolated tornadoes late Thursday and Friday, general manager John Zeller said.
"We have received some cancellations but not too many," he said. "Basically we are telling people to kind of wait and see what happens."
The motel has a 72-hour advance notice on cancellations, but Zeller said it will be waived if the storm tracks toward the area or warnings are issued.
In Savannah, rooms in the downtown historic district were expected to be at least 80% full for the holiday weekend when crowds pack the beach on neighboring Tybee Island.
Amy Gaster said her Tybee Island vacation rental company had more than 200 beach homes and condos booked for the weekend, likely to be the busiest of the year. If forecasts start to show a serious threat, Gaster said her staff is prepared to send alerts to guests' cellphones.
But as long as Arthur stays offshore, she said her biggest concerns are rip currents and possible thundershowers Thursday when thousands are expected to pack the Georgia coast's largest public beach for fireworks.
The depression is expected to turn northwestward, followed by a northern turn Wednesday, according to the hurricane center. By then, Tropical Storm Arthur is expected to pass east of northeastern Florida by Wednesday night and be on track to hit near the Carolinas Thursday night.
According to the forecast track from the National Hurricane Center, the storm will near the North Carolina outer banks around 2 a.m. Friday as a hurricane.
"Hopefully, Mother Nature is going to cooperate with us this year," Gaster said.
Contributing: The Fort Myers (Fla.) News-Press; Chris Bonanno, Florida Today; and The Associated Press