A powerful Hurricane Earl threatened to lash much of America’s East Coast, forcing Labour Day holidaymakers to rethink spending the traditional last week of summer at the beach.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency warned people along the Eastern Seaboard to prepare for possible evacuations and islanders in the Turks and Caicos sheltered in their homes today as the Category 4 hurricane steamed across the Caribbean with winds of 135mph.
North Carolina announced the first evacuation would be Ocracoke Island today. Tourists would be ordered to leave the barrier island accessible only by ferries, but those who live there year-round have the option to stay.
Earl was expected to remain over the open ocean before turning north and running parallel to the East Coast, bringing high winds and heavy rain to North Carolina’s Outer Banks by late tomorrow or early on Friday.
From there, forecasters said, it could curve away from the coast as it makes it way north, perhaps hitting Massachusetts’ Cape Cod and the Maine shoreline on Friday night and Saturday.
Forecasters warned that it was still too early to tell how close Earl might come to land, though hurricane watches were out from North Carolina to the Virginia border.
Not since Hurricane Bob in 1991 has such a powerful storm had such a large swathe of the East Coast in its sights, said Dennis Feltgen, spokesman for the National Hurricane Centre.
“A slight shift of that track to the west is going to impact a great deal of real estate with potential hurricane-force winds,” Mr Feltgen said.
Even if Earl stays well offshore, it will kick up rough surf and dangerous rip currents up and down the coast through the Labour Day weekend, a prime time for beach holidays, forecasters say. Labour Day is officially on Monday.
The approaching storm troubled many East Coast beach towns that had hoped to capitalise on the BP oil spill and draw visitors who normally holiday on the Gulf Coast.
On Monday, Earl delivered a glancing blow to several small Caribbean islands, tearing roofs off homes and knocking out electricity to people in Anguilla, Antigua and St Maarten. In Puerto Rico, nearly 187,000 people were without power and 60,000 without water. Cruise ships were diverted and flights cancelled across the region.
Meanwhile gusty winds from Earl’s outer fringes whipped palm fronds and whistled through doors in the Turks and Caicos Islands as tied-down boats seesawed on white-crested surf.
Islanders gathered to watch big waves pound a Grand Turk shore as the wind sent sand and salt spray flying.
“We can hear the waves crashing against the reef really seriously,” Kirk Graff, owner of the Captain Kirks Flamingo Cove Marina, said by telephone as he watched the darkening skies. “Anybody who hasn’t secured their boats by now is going to regret it.”
In the US, FEMA administrator Craig Fugate said state and local authorities may need to order evacuations along the Eastern Seaboard later this week if the storm did not veer away as expected.
Early today Earl was centred about 150 miles east of Grand Turk island and 1,000 miles south east of North Carolina as it headed north west at 14mph. Close on its heels was Tropical Storm Fiona, which had weakened considerably and not expected to get stronger at least for a couple of days.