(Recasts with latest hurricane forecast, quotes)
By Gene Cherry
RALEIGH, N.C., July 3 (Reuters) - The first hurricane of the Atlantic season gained strength on Thursday as its outer bands reached North Carolina, where thousands of vacationers scrubbed their July Fourth holiday beach plans and evacuated low-lying barrier islands in the storm's path.
Hurricane Arthur was about 150 miles (240 km) south-southwest of Cape Fear, North Carolina, with maximum sustained winds of 80 miles per hour (130 km per hour), U.S. forecasters said.
Moving faster at 9 mph (15 kph), the center of the Category 1 hurricane was expected to brush close to the North Carolina Outer Banks late Thursday and early Friday, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
Tourists and some residents packed ferries and crowded the only highway off Ocracoke and Hatteras islands, where voluntary and mandatory evacuations were in effect in anticipation of worsening weather conditions.
"Pre-storm jitters and preparation," Dare County Commissioner Allen Burrus said of the mood early on Thursday. "Right now it is beautiful, but it is going to deteriorate around 5 or 6 this afternoon."
Some locals said they would ride out the storm. Retiree Gerry Lebing, who owns a home in Waves on Hatteras Island, said he was tying things down at his house and moving cars to higher ground to avoid damage from the potential storm surge.
The worst of Arthur's winds were expected to remain offshore, forecasters said. But the storm could bring gusty squalls, heavy rain, life-threatening rip currents and a storm surge of up to 4 feet (1.2 meters) to North Carolina's barrier islands.
"There could be loss of electricity, there could be restaurants closing, there could be cars flooding and roads could be compromised," Hyde County manager Bill Rich said.
Several towns and villages on North Carolina's coast rescheduled Independence Day festivities and fireworks as the storm approached.
Farther up the coast, the resort town of Ocean City, Maryland, moved its July Fourth fireworks display to Saturday because of the storm.
Boston officials also moved up to Thursday a nationally televised concert by the Boston Pops and a fireworks display, which draw hundreds of thousands of spectators to the city's riverfront.
The hurricane center said Arthur's winds will hit 85 mph (137 kph) in the next 24 hours, and the storm will retain hurricane strength for at least 48 hours before weakening over cooler water as it spins to the northeast.
(Reporting by Gene Cherry; Additional reporting by Anupam Chatterjee in Bangalore, Eric M. Johnson in Seattle and David Adams in Miami; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Eric Beech)
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