Hurricane Earl Weakens Slightly; Churns Toward East Coast

By Gene Cherry | September 1, 2010

Visitors and some residents evacuated from low-lying vacation islands off the North Carolina coast Wednesday as Hurricane Earl bore down on the U.S. eastern seaboard, churning up dangerous swells.

Earl, still a major Category 3 hurricane, weakened slightly overnight but was on a track that could approach the North Carolina coast by Friday morning, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

Packing top sustained winds of 125 mph, Earl was churning over the open Atlantic. The hurricane was expected to sideswipe the densely populated coast from North Carolina to New England on a forecast northward offshore path during the upcoming U.S. Labor Day holiday weekend marking the end of the summer vacation season.

This was expected to bring driving rain, high winds and pounding surf, but forecasters so far have not predicted a direct hit on the U.S. East Coast.

North Carolina’s Dare County ordered the mandatory evacuation of all visitors from Hatteras Island, a popular picturesque vacation spot that draws large numbers of tourists each year. Officials said high waves striking the island could wash over the costal highway, impeding safe travel.

Vacationers and residents were also being evacuated from Ocracoke Island, also on North Carolina’s Outer Banks that jut into the Atlantic Ocean.

At 8 a.m. EST, Earl was moving across the Atlantic well to the east of the Bahamas and was located about 780 miles south southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, the Miami-based National Hurricane Center said.

“Large swells from Earl should affect the Bahamas and the southeastern coast of the United States today (Wednesday). These swells will likely cause dangerous surf conditions and rip currents,” the center said.

Hurricane Earl posed no threat to major U.S. oil and gas installations in the Gulf of Mexico.

Earl’s top sustained winds slowed somewhat to 125 mph, making it a Category 3 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson intensity scale, the NHC said.

A hurricane watch was extended northward along the Virginia coast and officials warned that any westward deviation from the forecast track could prompt coastal evacuations or even bring the storm ashore.

“A small error of 100 miles in the wrong direction could be a huge impact difference,” National Hurricane Center Director Bill Read told journalists.

“Even a minor shift back to the west could bring impacts to portions of the coastline from the mid-Atlantic northwards.”

The hurricane watch, issued by the Miami-based hurricane center, alerts residents that hurricane conditions — sustained winds of 74 mph — are possible within 48 hours.

Monday, Earl battered the northeastern Caribbean islands and Puerto Rico, downing power lines, blowing off roofs, toppling trees and causing some flooding. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

(Additional reporting by Gene Cherry in Raleigh, Tom Brown, Kevin Gray and Pascal Fletcher in Miami and Eileen Moustakis in New York; editing by Anthony Boadle)

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