As Hurricane Earl nears, FEMA says prepare to leave

From News Services and Staff Reports
Wednesday, September 1, 2010

As Hurricane Earl made its way toward the Eastern Seaboard on Tuesday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency warned people along the coast to prepare for possible evacuation orders from state and local governments.

"The primary threat is going to be storm surge," said FEMA Administrator W. Craig Fugate. He advised people to also be mindful of high winds and flooding.

North Carolina officials announced the first evacuation late Tuesday, saying that tourists would be ordered to leave Ocracoke Island beginning at 5 a.m. Wednesday. Those who live year-round on the barrier island, accessible only by ferries, have the option to stay.

Islanders in the Turks and Caicos hunkered down Tuesday as the Category 4 hurricane steamed across the Caribbean with winds of 135 mph.

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 Thursday or early Friday. From there, forecasters said, it could curve away from the coast somewhat as it makes its way north, perhaps hitting Massachusetts's Cape Cod and the Maine shoreline Friday night and Saturday.

FEMA is deploying response teams from the Carolinas to Maine. "We . . . make sure this is a support to the governors and their teams," Fugate said, adding later that "we're not waiting for people to ask."

FEMA teams from the West Coast are deploying to New England to assist if necessary, he said.

The agency's ability to act in advance of big storms is a direct result of congressional reforms enacted after 2005's Hurricane Katrina. Critics argued then that the agency waited too long to respond, waiting for formal requests from the states instead of deploying resources that it knew were needed.

Fugate spent most of Tuesday at FEMA's operations center in Washington, receiving updates from teams in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico that are assessing Earl's damage to the Caribbean, briefing top officials and coordinating with response teams along the East Coast.

In Puerto Rico, nearly 187,000 people were without power and 60,000 without water, Gov. Luis Fortuno (R) said. Cruise ships were diverted and flights canceled across the region, but there were no reports of deaths or serious injuries.

Not since Hurricane Bob in 1991 has such a powerful storm had such a large swath of the East Coast in its sights, said Dennis Feltgen, a spokesman for the National Hurricane Center.

Even if Earl stays well offshore, it will kick up rough surf and dangerous rip currents up and down the coast through the Labor Day weekend, forecasters said.

And what about Earl's potential impact on Labor Day plans?

"Don't cancel anything outright; it'll be a conditional, case-by-case situation, but chances are, unless you're being directly impacted, you may have a good weekend," Fugate said.

As of late Tuesday afternoon, Earl was centered about 150 miles east of Grand Turk island - and 1,000 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras, N.C. - as it headed northwest at 14 mph. 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.

Staff writer Ed O'Keefe contributed to this report.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company