Hurricane Earl approaches: Some dig in, others flee coast

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 2, 2010; 9:44 AM

Hurricane Earl swirled toward the East Coast on Thursday with treacherous winds and driving rain, forcing thousands of vacationers to evacuate parts of the Outer Banks and setting in motion a flurry of preparations to minimize damage as far north as Maine.

The National Weather Service restored Earl to a Class 4 hurricane late Wednesday when its winds increased to 135 mph, which, coupled with heavy rain, threatens extensive destruction depending on how close it comes to shore. By Thursday the winds had increased to 145 mph.

"This is a dangerous situation," said Gladys Rubio, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

The last time a hurricane became such a threat to the East Coast was in 1991, when Hurricane Bob caused an estimated $620 million in damage, officials said.

Earl is expected to approach the vulnerable Outer Banks on Thursday night and the Delmarva Peninsula by Friday.

Forecasters were trying to determine whether the storm would stay offshore as it headed up the Northeast coast or bring hurricane-force winds to Long Island, the Boston metropolitan area and Cape Cod.

The National Hurricane Center issued a tropical storm warning early Thursday for the coast of Long Island in New York and a hurricane watch was issued for areas of Massachusetts. A hurricane warning was already in effect for the coast of North Carolina.

The storm was 355 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras at 11 p.m. Wednesday, moving north-northwest at 18 mph, with hurricane-force winds extending 90 miles from the center and tropical storm-force winds extending 230 miles. Forecasters cautioned that just a slight deviation of the storm's path could bring the strongest winds and heaviest rains closer or even on shore. "It's very important to prepare for the worst and see what happens," Rubio said.

Days before the usually busy Labor Day weekend, officials began evacuations Wednesday. As many as 30,000 tourists were expected to evacuate Hatteras Island, along with 800 year-round residents, as were about 4,200 tourists on Ocracoke Island. About 4,800 permanent residents of Hatteras have not been asked to leave. As of noon Wednesday, 336 vehicles and 723 passengers had left Ocracoke on ferries.

"We're bummed," said Tina Riviello, 42, of Paoli, Pa., who was sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic with her three children and husband after being evacuated from an oceanfront house in Hatteras they had rented for a week. "The hardest part about leaving is it's sunny and beautiful. It's hard to believe a hurricane is coming."

A hurricane warning - which means hurricane conditions, including winds of at least 74 mph, were expected within 36 hours - was issued for an area stretching from Bogue Inlet in North Carolina to the North Carolina/Virginia border. A hurricane watch, which means hurricane conditions are expected within 48 hours, was extended northward to Cape Henlopen in Delaware. Tropical-storm warnings and watches were issued for as far north Nova Scotia in Canada, including Long Island and Fire Island in New York, Cape Cod and the resort islands of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket in Massachusetts and the coast of Maine.

Based on Earl's current projected path, the Census Bureau calculated that 1.8 million people in 22 counties in North Carolina and Virginia could face hurricane and tropical-storm conditions within the next 48 hours.

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