Officials reopening Outer Banks as Maria races out to sea

A woman stands in the water as Hurricane Maria moves closer to North Carolina's Outer Banks on Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017. Thousands of visitors abandoned their vacation plans and left the area as the hurricane moved northward in the Atlantic, churning up surf and possible flooding. (AP Photo/Ben Finley)
FILE - In this Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017, file photo, a couple sits in their home in El Negro, Puerto Rico, a day after the impact of Hurricane Maria. Maria has devastated Puerto Rico, destroying buildings and leaving its more than 3.4 million residents largely without power. Food and drinking water are also difficult to come by, and the recovery will be long, difficult and expensive. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti, File)
Waves wash ashore hitting a house as winds and storm surge from Tropical Storm Maria lash North Carolinas Outer Banks as the storm moves by well off-shore on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017. Dare County officials said the high tide flooded some roads in the area and travel is hazardous. (AP Photo/Ben Finley)
People wait in line outside a grocery store to buy food that wouldn't spoil and that they could prepare without electricity, in San Juan, Monday, Sept. 25, 2017. Most stores and restaurants remained closed Monday. Nearly all of Puerto Rico was without power or water five days after Hurricane Maria.(AP Photo/Ben Fox)
This combination of photos released by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows Puerto Rico at night on July 24, 2017, top, before the passing of Hurricane Maria, and on Sept. 25, days after the hurricane wiped out most of the island's power. NOAA corrected the date of the bottom image to Sept. 25 on Twitter. Most of Puerto Rico has been without lights or air conditioning since the passing of Maria on Sept. 20 and is looking at many more. (NOAA via AP)
In this Monday, Sept. 25, 2017 photo, Christian Mendoza counts money in the aisle of a supermarket where he had hoped to buy bottled water but only found cans of juice, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Mendoza said the car wash where he works hasn't re-opened so he has been selling bottled water, even though he isn’t able to refrigerate it. (AP Photo/Ben Fox)
Floodwaters surround homes as Hurricane Maria moves closer to North Carolina's Outer Banks on Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017. Thousands of visitors abandoned their vacation plans and left the area as the hurricane moved northward in the Atlantic, churning up surf and possible flooding. (AP Photo/Ben Finley)
People wait in line for gas, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, in Aibonito, Puerto Rico, Monday, Sept. 25, 2017. The U.S. ramped up its response Monday to the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico while the Trump administration sought to blunt criticism that its response to Hurricane Maria has fallen short of it efforts in Texas and Florida after the recent hurricanes there. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Jose Garcia Vicente walks through rubble of his destroyed home, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, in Aibonito, Puerto Rico, Monday, Sept. 25, 2017. The U.S. ramped up its response Monday to the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico while the Trump administration sought to blunt criticism that its response to Hurricane Maria has fallen short of it efforts in Texas and Florida after the recent hurricanes there. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

WAVES, N.C. — Maria raced away from the U.S. East Coast on Thursday, giving the nation its first rest from the constant threat of tropical weather for more than a month.

No injuries have been reported on the U.S. mainland from Maria, which lashed North Carolina's fragile Outer Banks with high water and waves, washing over the only highway connecting Hatteras Island to the mainland.

Maria moved slowly Monday and Tuesday before accelerating out to sea late Wednesday and weakening to a tropical storm early Thursday. Its tropical storm-force winds extended for as much as 240 miles (390 kilometers) from the center, churning up the surf on both sides of the fragile islands.

On Thursday as Maria moved further offshore, Officials began reopening the islands of Hatteras and Ocracoke to visitors after more than 10,000 tourists were evacuated Monday. Full ferry service to Ocracoke, reachable only by boat or airplane, was resuming as Hatteras Island also planned to reopen the main road link to the mainland.

The Dare County Sheriff's Office said stretches of the highway were still covered in sand and water as crews work to clear the road. Officials also warned swimmers to stay out of the ocean because of dangerous surf and strong rip currents that remain.

On Thursday afternoon, Maria was centered about 445 miles (715 kilometers) east-northeast of Cape Hatteras.

Since Harvey formed in the Gulf of Mexico on Aug. 24, forecasters have been watching the Atlantic for likely threats to the United States or the Caribbean islands.

But the National Hurricane Center predicts that Maria and Hurricane Lee, which strengthened to a major Category 3 hurricane Wednesday before weakening to Category 2 in the open Atlantic, were both headed quickly east into colder water and further away from land.

Maria struck Puerto Rico as a major Category 4 hurricane, its winds devastating the island. As the storm headed north and west, North Carolina officials ordered tourists to leave Hatteras and Ocracoke because of the possible flooding.

That left locals to watch another storm chew up their beaches. This is the fourth named tropical storm to impact the islands in the past two years. During the winters, Nor'easters can also churn away sand and flood roads.

"Mother Nature keeps chopping at it," said Tony Meekins, 55, a lifelong resident of Avon who works as an engineer on the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry. "We see storm after storm."

Standing near Avon's closed fishing pier, Meekins pointed to where the dune line is gone, pounded down by previous storms. At low tide, a layer of wet sand covered the road.

Brent and Donna Bennett of Buxton worry about lost wages. He works at an ice cream shop, which was closed, and she couldn't make it through the floods to her hotel desk job in Hatteras Village.

"Storms are something you come to expect. We seem to have more of our share recently, and I'm over it," Donna Bennett said.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration announced it will waive federal restrictions on foreign ships' transportation of cargo to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Thursday on Twitter that President Donald Trump had "authorized the Jones Act be waived for Puerto Rico." She said Trump was responding to a request from the governor and it "will go into effect immediately."

The Jones Act is a little-known federal law that prohibits foreign-flagged ships from shuttling goods between U.S. ports. Republicans and Democrats have pushed Trump to waive the Jones Act, saying it could help get desperately needed supplies delivered to the island more quickly and at less cost.

___

Associated Press writer Jack Jones in Columbia, South Carolina, contributed to this report.

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