Buxton, N.C. — The last ferry left for the mainland and coastal residents hunkered down at home as Hurricane Earl closed in with 105 mph winds today on North Carolina’s dangerously exposed Outer Banks, the first and perhaps most destructive stop on the storm’s projected journey up the Eastern Seaboard.
The hurricane’s squalls began to lash the long ribbon of barrier islands. Gusts above 40 mph made signs shake and the heavy rain fall sideways in Buxton, the southeasternmost tip of the Outer Banks.
Hurricane Earl’s winds were slowing, from 140 mph early Thursday to 105 mph, Category 2 strength, later. But forecasters warned that it remained powerful, with hurricane-force winds of 74 mph or more extending 70 miles from its center and tropical storm-force winds of at least 35 mph reaching more than 200 miles out.
“It’s interesting to me to just see what Mother Nature can do,” said Jay Lopez, 36, of Frisco, as the wind howled through Buxton.
Federal, state and local authorities were waiting for daybreak to begin patrolling the coast to check for damage.
But National Weather Service meteorologist Chris Collins said early today that Earl had produced little storm surge and only minor flooding in some coastal counties. Predictions of storm surges between 2 and 4 feet may be generous, he said.
The Coast Guard planned an airplane flyover of the Outer Banks and were prepared for search-and-rescue helicopter flights.
Collins said the eye of the hurricane was expected to get about 100 miles east of the Outer Banks about 2 a.m. today. Earlier, forecasters said it would get as close as 55 miles and protected the coast would be lashed by hurricane-force winds with a storm surge of up to 5 feet and waves 18 feet high.
“It’s probably going to get a little hairy. We’re prepared for it. My biggest concern is the ocean, not the wind,” said Karen Denson Miller, who decided to stay on Hatteras Island with friends. The storm late Thursday was about 100 miles south of Cape Hatteras.
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 snarl travelers’ Labor Day weekend plans and strike a second forceful blow to the vacation homes and cottages on Long Island, Nantucket Island and Cape Cod. Forecast models showed the most likely place Earl will make landfall is on Saturday in western Nova Scotia, Canada, where it could still be a hurricane, said hurricane center deputy director Ed Rappaport.
Shelters were open in inland North Carolina, and officials on Nantucket Island, Mass., planned to set up a shelter at a high school today. North Carolina shut down ferry service between the Outer Banks and the mainland. Boats were being pulled from the water in the Northeast, and lobstermen in Maine set their traps out in deeper water to protect them.
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Rhode Island Gov. Donald Carcieri declared a state of emergency. Similar declarations have also made in North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland.
As of Thursday night, though, the only evacuations ordered were on the Outer Banks, which sticks out into the Atlantic Ocean like the side-view mirror on a car, vulnerable to a sideswiping. 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 Center Director Bill Read said.