Hurricane Diana, labeled a "dangerous" storm after building up strength as it crept toward the North Carolina coast, was pounding the beaches around Wilmington, N.C., last night with 115-mile-an-hour winds that were expected to whip tides to more than 12 feet above normal.

At 2 a.m. today, the eye, or center, of the storm was 20 miles southeast of Wilmington and appeared to be making small loop-like moves. In the previous eight hours, it had advanced only 10 miles north, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

Forecasters, however, cautioned that Diana could accelerate or change direction at any time and predicted that the storm would come ashore later in the morning somehwere between Wilmington and Morehead City, perhaps near Camp Lejuene, N.C.

But as the storm remained relatively stationary offshore, the extreme southern coastal areas of North Carolina were taking a beating.

Washington Post reporter Arthur Brisbane, speaking from a roadside phone booth at Carolina Beach early this morning as he was buffeted by 100-mile-an-hour wind gusts, said the rain had grown steadily heavier and the winds steadily stronger since 10 p.m. last night.

"The effect is really kind of fabulous," he said, describing how the frequent flashes of lightning turned the entire coastal sky a navy blue as the storm clouds swirled overhead.

More than 3 1/2 inches of rain in the Wilmington area had caused flooding of many roadways, Brisbane said, but no major damage and no injuries had been reported.

Throughout the afternoon and early evening yesterday, thousands of coastal residents and tourists fled low-lying areas as the storm moved inland. Hurricane warnings were in effect from Cape Romain, S.C., to Oregon Inlet, N.C., including Pamlico Sound, and gale warnings were posted north of Oregon Inlet to just south of Virginia Beach, including Albemarle Sound.

"I think most of the folks here wanted company during the storm, although some of the people in the mobile homes were more fearful for their safety," John Elder, pastor of the Southport (N.C.) Baptist Church, told Post reporter Brisbane last night as more than a score of people huddled around a kerosene lantern in the church basement.

Elder said power had been shut off to thousands of residents in Southport after high winds caused a fire in power transmission lines.

Brisbane said he saw only two other cars on the road last night as he traveled the 30 miles from Southport, near Cape Fear, to Wrightsville Beach, N.C., closer to the area where the storm is expected to hit land.

Winds were gusting between 70 and 90 miles an hour at Wrightsville Beach about 9:40 p.m., and police dispatcher Earl Williams told Brisbane that surf was beginning to break over the beach and flood beneath beach homes there, most of which are built on pilings.

Williams also reported minor flooding on the inland water side of the barrier island.

About 200 miles to the northeast, on the Outer Banks, Post reporter Sharon LaFraniere said preparations for the storm were proceeding at a more leisurely pace.

George Spence, who coordinates emergency preparedness for Dare County, N.C., said many of the old-time residents had little intention of fleeing.

"We have food and water," said Glenndale Granger, calmly. "Most of the people I talked to today are staying," added her husband, Gill.

Richard Austin, who is in the real estate business, said he was actually looking forward to the excitement that would be generated by flooding and high winds.

"It's a rush, like having someone point a gun at you. The adrenalin's squirting out your ears. After it's over you can say 'wow,' " Austin said.

The National Weather Service's Washington office said last night that Diana is likely to take one of three possible courses:

*It might continue northward across North Carolina and into Virginia and its winds might diminish substantially, except for squalls and strong gusts to the east of the center, especially over Chesapeake Bay and portions of the Atlantic. Rainfall in this area could be heavy at times.

*It might turn northeastward and cross southeastern Virginia or the Delmarva Peninsula. In that case, its winds would remain quite strong and high surf could cause erosion of the peninsula's beaches.

*It could stall over North Carolina, and its winds diminish in strength. That would cause heavy rainfall, especially over the southern sections of Virginia.

As the storm churned toward land throughout yesterday, thousands crowded into shelters.

The Red Cross said 7,000 persons were being housed in 23 shelters in the Wilmington area.

The largest of 10 emergency shelters in South Carolina, the Myrtle Beach Convention Center, housed some 1,200 evacuees and had reached capacity at noon.

Motels along Interstate 95 in North and South Carolina were jammed.

The hurricane center said the highest winds were packed tightly in a 25-mile-wide ring around Diana's 10-mile-wide eye.

The center said heavy rains -- of 10 inches or more -- would occur over central and eastern North Carolina during the night and today, with tidal surges of 8 to 10 feet along the rivers leading into Pamlico Sound.

In Miami, forecaster Zimmer said in midafternoon that the eye of the storm "seems to be pulsating."

"It has increased from near 100-mile-an-hour-winds this morning, to 125 miles an hour, and is still growing," he said.

The last major storm to strike the Carolina coast was Donna, a Category 3 storm that hit 24 years ago to the day, doing major damage to beach areas, which were then largely unsettled.

At Duke University in Durham, geologist Orin Pilkey warned that the storm could have disastrous consequences on some areas of the coast where development has been allowed to proceed unchecked and where residents have removed protective dune barriers for a better view of the ocean.

Pilkey, who has studied coastal erosion and barrier islands for some 20 years, said particular danger existed at Carolina Beach, north of Wilmington, where the Army Corps of Engineers several years ago "reconstituted" a beach that had eroded several times already this century.

Condominium development followed, he said, despite the fact that the sea routinely washes over the entire island in storms.

Karen Gottovi, chairman of the New Hanover (N.C.) County Board of Commissioners, recalled that the tidal surge from Hazel killed 22 people and caused $36 million in damage, destroying 352 of 357 buildings at Long Beach, southwest of Wilmington.

The surge from Diana, she said, could be the strongest since then.

A tornado watch was in effect for much of North Carolina as well, as it had been through the day along the South Carolina coast.

In Myrtle Beach, where high-rise motels and condominiums crowd the shoreline, few merchants had boarded up their stores, but many taped their windows.

Along the arcade-lined boardwalk, a few storm-watchers partied and diehard surfers speculated about the waves.

Others found less to cheer about.

"I haven't seen anything as bad as this," said Jerry Vann, a keyboardist for the country-rock group Loose Change, which was packing up its instruments yesterday afternoon as the storm neared.

"I guess we'll just go over to my house now, and do what we normally do, but without the music."