Hurricane Earl loses some steam, still packing 125 mph winds as it steams toward East Coast

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Earl weakens slightly, still packing 125 mph winds

MIAMI — Hurricane Earl is weakening slightly but it’s still packing winds near 125 mph as it blows toward North Carolina’s coast.

Earl is now a Category 3 hurricane, and it’s expected to pass the Outer Banks of North Carolina as a powerful storm tonight.

The Canadian Hurricane Centre has added a hurricane watch for Nova Scotia to the long list of warnings and watches in effect for a huge swath of the U.S. East Coast.

Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate says residents and tourists can no longer afford to wait on the next forecast to see how close the eye of the storm might get.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

BUXTON, N.C. (AP) — Hurricane Earl packed winds near 140 mph as it blew toward North Carolina on Thursday, putting the Eastern Seaboard all the way to Maine on alert for a Labor Day weekend pounding by waves, gales and rain.

A hurricane warning was issued for the tip of Massachusetts, including Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. Hurricane and tropical storm warnings and watches were already in effect from North Carolina to near the Canadian border.

With Earl closing in and winds expecting to whip up in North Carolina’s Outer Banks by the evening, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate said residents and tourists could no longer afford to wait on the next forecast to see how close the eye of the storm might get.

“People should not be lulled into a false sense that this will steer away from them,” Fugate said. “Time will be running out for people who have not gotten ready.”

Earl was a dangerous Category 4 storm and the hurricane force winds were beginning to spread farther from the eye, the National Hurricane Center in Miami said.

The center’s director, Bill Read, said hurricane winds were spread 90 miles from the eye and widening. The eye of the storm will likely remain about 30 to 75 miles east of the Outer Banks, meaning at the closest point of approach, the western edge of the eyewall could impact Cape Hatteras with huge waves, beach erosion and maybe some property damage.

“They’re going to have a full impact of a major hurricane,” Read said.

There will be a similar close approach later this week for the eastern tip of Long Island, Rhode Island, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket.

That will mean strong, gusty winds much like a nor’easter, and possibly fallen trees and power lines.

“This is the strongest hurricane to threaten the northeast and New England since Hurricane Bob in 1991,” said Dennis Feltgen, a meteorologist and spokesman for the National Hurricane Center. “They don’t get storms this powerful very often.”

Forecasters said Earl could pass within 30 miles of Nantucket Island, Mass., bringing wind gusts up to 100 mph.

“We’re preparing for the worst,” assistant town manager Gregg Tivnan said Thursday.

Gov. Beverly Perdue told reporters at a morning news conference that North Carolina is prepared for Earl. It’s now up to coastal citizens to get to a safe place as the storm passes by, she said.

“We’re very ready, as ready as anybody can be,” Perdue said. “It’s a serious storm and we all need to treat it like a serious storm.”

Tourists were largely gone from the Outer Banks, but residents who stayed behind said they were prepared to face down the powerful hurricane.

Three counties have issued evacuation orders, but Perdue said emergency officials can’t make residents leave their homes. She warned emergency crews often can’t immediately reach stranded coastal homeowners after a storm.

Evacuations continued early Thursday on the coast, with residents and visitors told to leave a barrier island in Carteret County and another in Dare County where the Wright Brothers National Memorial marks their first successful airplane flights at Kitty Hawk in 1903.

Residents like Nancy Scarborough, who manages the Hatteras Cabanas, said Outer Banks residents have a tight-knit community that takes care of its own.

“I worry about not being able to get back here,” she said. “I’d rather be stuck on this side than that side.”

Along with the 30,000 residents and visitors asked to leave Hatteras Island, 5,000 more tourists were ordered to leave Ocracoke Island, which is only accessible by ferry and airplane.

The North Carolina National Guard is deploying 80 troops to help and President Barack Obama declared an emergency in the state. The declaration authorizes the Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to coordinate all disaster relief efforts.

Preparations were going on all the way up the East Coast. In Maine, lobstermen took the storm in stride, putting their traps into deeper water to ride out the hurricane instead of pulling them in. Pat White said people who make their living on the water know weather can be fickle and storms like Earl can change their paths quickly.

“You never know,” White said. “You can’t trust them.”

Associated Press Writers Christine Armario in Miami; Martha Waggoner, Emery Dalesio and Gary Robertson in Raleigh, N.C.; Tom Breen in Morehead City, N.C.; Bruce Smith in Kure Beach, N.C.; Jeffrey Collins in Columbia, S.C.; Dena Potter in Norfolk, Va.; David Sharp from Portland, Maine; Mark Pratt in Boston; Frank Eltman in Southampton, N.Y.; and Bruce Shipkowski in Trenton, N.J., contributed to this report.

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