Hurricane Earl threatens holiday travel plans

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 2, 2010

More Americans plan to travel over the Labor Day weekend this year than last -- including almost 790,000 in the Washington region -- but those on the East Coast might think twice if tropical weather bears down by Friday.

Hurricane Earl and Tropical Storm Fiona could produce a rainy and rambunctious weekend in the mid-Atlantic states. But tropical storms are such fickle suitors that it is too soon to know whether they will come knocking on the door.

The Capital Weather Gang said that Earl is likely to remain at sea, although rough seas and rip currents might affect coastal areas.

"One way or the other, the weather forecast will have a direct impact on the travel forecast," said John B. Townsend II, spokesman for the AAA, as he issued results of the group's annual Labor Day travel survey. "The impact of the hurricane on travel this weekend will depend on what the storm does in the next 48 hours."

Nationally, the AAA survey found that 34.4 million people expected to take a trip of 50 miles or more away from home. That's an increase of 9.9 percent from the 31.3 million who traveled last year.

The survey found that 731,000 Washington area residents planned to drive to a destination this weekend, an increase of more than 9 percent from last year. An additional 34,000 said they intend to fly somewhere, almost 4 percent more than in 2009, and 23,000 said they planned to take trains, buses or other modes of transportation, an increase of 5.7 percent.

"About 40 percent of them indicate they will go to the beach or some waterfront," Townsend said. "Another 10 percent said they plan to go boating, but that was before we got news of this potential weather problem."

If tropical weather comes this weekend or early next week, it will arrive on the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Isabel, the worst hurricane to affect the Chesapeake Bay region since 1933. That storm swept inland on a track just west of the bay in 2003, resulting in a storm surge of up to eight feet and causing rivers in Northern Virginia, the District and Maryland to flood.

On Tuesday, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley consulted with Ocean City officials and state emergency management agencies.

"What we're doing now is monitoring the storm's track," said Shaun Adamec, O'Malley's spokesman. "Right now the track takes it about 200 miles off Ocean City, which would create some big swells and rain. We're running through basic scenarios if that changes."

Maryland transportation officials urge residents headed over the Bay Bridge to the beaches to travel during off-peak hours. State officials said the best times are generally Thursday before 2 p.m.; Friday before noon and after 10 p.m.; Saturday before 7 a.m. and between 5 and 10 p.m.; Sunday between 7 a.m. and 11 a.m. and after 10 p.m.; and Labor Day before 11 a.m. and after 10 pm. But if Earl does put in an appearance, that advisory could change dramatically.

This year has shown a sharp increase in the number of holiday-weekend travelers, according to AAA surveys. Travel by Washington area residents was up by 6 percent over the Memorial Day weekend and 18.4 percent over the July 4 weekend.

"Motorists hitting the road for Labor Day can expect to see the same prices at the pump as they did for the July 4 weekend -- a number 10 cents lower than what they saw during this year's Memorial Day travel," Townsend said. "Gas prices are averaging $2.63 a gallon in the metro area and $2.68 per gallon nationwide as the holiday weekend nears. Still, the cost of gas in the metro area is 5 cents higher than the $2.58 drivers paid in 2009."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company