Forecasters expected the storm to turn northeast away from land, but the possibility of a full-force landfall in North Carolina remained. Even if Dennis' eye remains offshore, they said, the storm's strong winds could cause problems for coastal residents.
"(Dennis) has a very large eye, and the highest winds are well removed from the center," Todd Kimberlain, a meteorologist with the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said today. "So even if the center stays offshore, there's a good chance in the warned area that they're going to experience hurricane conditions."
A hurricane warning was in effect for much of the North Carolina coast, and a smattering of residents sought refuge in shelters in several coastal counties. The barrier islands along the Outer Banks were under an evacuation order.
At 5 a.m., Dennis was centered about 100 miles south-southwest of Cape Lookout and was moving north-northeast at about 12 mph. Maximum sustained winds were near 100 mph. Areas along the Cape Fear coast reported gusts of up to 80 mph early today.
A tropical storm warning was in effect from North Carolina to Maryland while a gale warning was in effect from Chincoteague, Va., to Cape Henlopen, Del.
A flood watch remained in the North Carolina coastal counties of Brunswick and New Hanover where up to 10 inches of rain was expected by morning. Isolated tornadoes also were possible today.
More than 30,000 customers were without power today from New Hanover County to as far west as Raleigh in the central part of the state, said Sally Ramey, a spokeswoman for Carolina Power and Light Co. The outage was expected to grow, she said.
Roughly 100 evacuees _ fewer than expected _ sought refuge Sunday night at a Red Cross shelter at a Wilmington middle school. "It's just been a trickle," said shelter manager Judy Saunders.
On Sunday afternoon, Gov. Jim Hunt issued emergency and disaster decrees, allowing more resources to be devoted to the storm. Seymour Johnson Air Force Base sent aircraft to bases in Ohio as a precaution.
In Atlantic Beach on Sunday, residents took the storm in stride. Few houses were boarded, including those directly on the coast. Fire officials combed the beachfront in all-terrain vehicles, chasing away those who ignored posted warnings.
Just offshore, lone surfer Joey Gray rose and fell on surging tides. "I think he's nuts," said Lt. Phil Lawrence of the city's fire department as he waited for Gray to come ashore.
Once on land, Gray was unfazed. "I know it has a certain amount of risk," he said.
Others didn't tempt fate. At Ziggy's by the Sea, a boardwalk club, the yells of beach volleyball fans had been replaced by the sounds of hammers and electric screwdrivers, as owner Spencer Stephens closed down.
Francis Vincent of Fenton, Mich. had planned to spend a few days in a rustic cabin on the nearby island of Camp Lookout. With a gas grill, jugs of water and even an inflatable dinghy, he was well-prepared for the storm, though he planned to ride it out in a mainland hotel.
"We're set for no power," he joked. "It can't be no worse than a tornado."
In South Carolina, Dennis had become more a nuisance than a threat as rain fell on tourists slowly fleeing the coast in bumper-to-bumper traffic. The storm spun about 100 miles south of Myrtle Beach, bringing needed rain in a season of drought.
Further south, Georgia disaster officials felt relief for the first time in days as Dennis' northerly push assured the state it was free from its wrath.
"We're starting to uncross our fingers very slowly," said Phillip Webber, director of the Emergency Management Agency in coastal Chatham County.
In Florida, where a two-day brush with Dennis' outer edge brought downpours and wind gusts but no serious damage, surfers frolicked in the rolling sea on Sunday as cruise ships returned after fleeing when the possibility of disaster lurked.
At the Portside Galley Restaurant in Port Canaveral, Fla., Christine DeSouza welcomed breakfast patrons with a new sign.
"Hello customers, bye bye Dennis," it read.