BUXTON, N.C. -- The last ferry left for the mainland and coastal residents hunkered down at home as Hurricane Earl closed in with 105 mph winds Thursday on North Carolina's dangerously exposed Outer Banks, the first and perhaps most destructive stop on the storm's projected journey up the Eastern Seaboard.

The hurricane's squalls began to lash the long ribbon of barrier islands Thursday night. Gusts above 40 mph made signs shake, and the heavy rain fell sideways in Buxton, the southeasternmost tip of the Outer Banks.

Hurricane Earl's winds were slowing, from 140 mph early Thursday to 105 mph, Category 2 strength, by late Thursday. But forecasters warned that it remained powerful, with hurricane-force winds of 74 mph or more extending 70 miles from its center and tropical storm-force winds of at least 35 mph reaching more than 200 miles out.

National Weather Service meteorologist Hal Austin said the eye of the hurricane was expected to get as close as 55 miles east of the Outer Banks about 2 a.m. Friday. The coast is expected to be lashed by hurricane-force winds for a couple of hours with a storm surge of up to 5 feet and waves 18 feet high.

Earl's arrival could mark the start of at least 24 hours of stormy, windy weather along the East Coast. During its march up the Atlantic, it could snarl travelers' weekend plans and strike a second forceful blow to the vacation homes and cottages on Long Island, Nantucket Island and Cape Cod. Forecast models showed the most likely place Earl will make landfall is western Nova Scotia, Canada, where it still could be a hurricane, said hurricane center deputy director Ed Rappaport.

It was unclear exactly how close Earl's center and its strongest winds would get to land. But Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate said people shouldn't wait for the next forecast to act.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Rhode Island Gov. Donald Carcieri declared a state of emergency. Similar declarations have also made in North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland.

As of Thursday night, though, the only evacuations ordered were on the Outer Banks, which sticks out into the Atlantic Ocean like the side-view mirror on a car, vulnerable to a sideswiping. About 35,000 tourists and residents were urged to leave.

A slow winding down was expected to continue as the storm moved into cooler waters, but forecasters warned the size of the storm's wind field was increasing, similar to what happened when Hurricane Katrina approached the Gulf Coast.

Earl is expected to move north-northeast for much of Friday, staying away from New Jersey and the other mid-Atlantic states, but also passing very close to Long Island, Cape Cod and Nantucket, which could get gusts up to 100 mph. The storm is expected to finally move ashore in Canada sometime Saturday afternoon.