Weakened hurricane still a threat to US coast

Weakened hurricane still a threat to US coast

The last ferry left for the mainland and residents took shelter as Hurricane Earl closed in on North Carolina’s dangerously exposed Outer Banks today with 105mph winds.

It was the first and perhaps most destructive stop on the storm’s projected journey up America’s East Coast.

Gusts above 40mph made signs shake and the heavy rain fall sideways in Buxton, the south-easternmost tip of the Outer Banks.

Hurricane Earl’s winds were slowing from 140mph to 105 mph, Category 2 strength, by early today. But forecasters warned that it remained powerful, with hurricane-force winds of 74mph or more extending 70 miles from its centre and tropical storm-force winds of at least 35mph, 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 at about 7am British time.

The coast was expected to be lashed by hurricane-force winds for a couple of hours with a storm surge of up to five 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 scupper travellers’ weekend plans for the Labour Day holiday and strike a second forceful blow to the holiday homes and cottages on Long Island, Nantucket Island and Cape Cod.

Forecast models showed the most likely place Earl would make landfall was western Nova Scotia, Canada, where it could still be a hurricane, said hurricane centre deputy director Ed Rappaport.

Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Craig Fugate said people should not wait for the next forecast to act.

“This is a day of action. Conditions are going to deteriorate rapidly,” he said.

Shelters were open in inland North Carolina and officials on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, planned to set up a shelter at a high school. North Carolina shut down ferry service between the Outer Banks and the mainland, boats were being pulled from the water in the North East, and lobstermen in Maine set their traps out in deeper water to protect them.

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

As of early today though, the only evacuations ordered were on the Outer Banks, which sticks out into the Atlantic Ocean like the side mirror on a car, vulnerable to a sideswipe. 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 five years ago.

“It will be bigger. The storm won’t be as strong, but they spread out as they go north and the rain will be spreading from New England,” National Hurricane Centre director Bill Read said.

In North Carolina, the end of an already dilapidated wooden pier in Frisco, one of the villages on Hatteras Island, collapsed after being battered by high surf yesterday. It had been closed to the public because of past storm damage.

Officials warned once the winds began to pick up, police, firefighters and paramedics probably were not going to answer emergency calls.

“Once this storm comes in and becomes serious, once it’s at its worst point, we are not going to put any emergency worker in harm’s way,” North Carolina governor Beverly Perdue said.

Forecasters said that after Earl passed the Outer Banks, a kink in the jetstream over the eastern US should push the storm away from the coast, guiding it like a marble in a groove.

Earl is expected to move north-north east for much of later today, 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 100mph.

The storm is expected to finally move ashore in Canada some tomorrow night British time.

“This is the strongest hurricane to threaten the North East and New England since Hurricane Bob in 1991,” said Dennis Feltgen, a meteorologist with the National Hurricane Centre.

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