Earl forces evacuations in North Carolina

Evacuations will begin today in part of North Carolina as Hurricane Earl gathered steam in the Atlantic, threatening East Coast residents and Labor Day weekend travelers.

Federal officials warned of more possible evacuations. The storm’s uncertain track and high speed as it moves up the coast may force emergency management planners to issue evacuation orders even if they’re not sure the storm will move on shore, said Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

“We do not have a forecasted landfall, but this is a very large storm, and we do expect impacts along the coast,” Fugate said. “Evacuations may be required if the storm does not move to the north or to the east.”

The Category 4 storm, with maximum sustained winds of 135 mph, began a more northwesterly track Tuesday and could reach the North Carolina coast by Thursday or Friday, the National Hurricane Center said. FEMA has sent a team to North Carolina and will have teams ready to fly into New England today, Fugate said.

In North Carolina, Hyde County emergency management said tourists will be ordered off Ocracoke Island, a barrier island accessible only by ferries, starting today, the Associated Press reported. Year-round residents have the option to stay.

The National Weather Service issued hurricane watches Tuesday evening for parts of the state. This means hurricane-force winds of 74 mph or higher are possible within the next 48 hours for areas between Surf City, N.C., to the North Carolina-Virginia border.

“There’s still some expectation of a close approach to Cape Hatteras (N.C.), and if it doesn’t move east, then in Cape Cod (Mass.),” said Bill Read, director of the National Hurricane Center in a joint conference call with Fugate. “Even if it stays parallel to the coast, we’ll have some large waves and storm surge.”

Emergency planners are worried most about the storm surge flooding low-lying communities, Fugate said.

Evacuation orders are being timed based on the likely arrival of tropical-storm-force winds because they can make driving on bridges dangerous. “It may be so close to their decision-making point, that they will have to decide or they won’t be left with any decision time,” Fugate said.

The storm’s course depends on the arrival of a weather system pushing winds from the south and southwest that is moving toward the east, said Rick Knabb, hurricane expert at The Weather Channel. Those winds will turn Earl north and northeast eventually, he said.

Dangerous coast-hugging storms have a history in this area, including the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944 and Hurricane Donna in 1960, Knabb said. “These kinds of storms can produce huge waves and storm surge and hurricane force winds and rains,” he said. “Even if the storm doesn’t come on shore.”

The last hurricane to have a major impact on the Mid-Atlantic was Hurricane Isabel, which bisected Hatteras Island in 2003. The last hurricane for New England was Hurricane Bob in 1991. Most communities were on the west side of the storm, which is less severe. This could happen with Earl too, said Todd Kimberlin, hurricane center forecaster.

It’s too early to tell whether Earl will have any impact on air travel, said David Castelveter of the Air Transport Association. Air travelers should pay close attention to carrier websites to learn about flexible travel policies that allow travelers to change itineraries for free.

“Planes don’t land or take off in tropical-storm-force winds,” Castelveter said. “They’ll fly the last possible flight into a city to get people and airplanes out.”

East Coast holiday drivers should brace “for a worst case scenario” if the hurricane prompts evacuation orders, said John Townsend of AAA Mid-Atlantic’s Washington office.

The auto club was projecting a 10% increase in Labor Day travel for the Mid-Atlantic and northern East Coast, with about a third of people nationwide planning to go to a waterfront or beach, Townsend said.

“If you’re traveling by car you have to be really cognizant of weather and road conditions,” he said.

Sterling Webster, of the Ramada Plaza Nags Head Beach in Kill Devil Hills, N.C., said the hotel has received some cancellations, but the hotel was so full that employees were opening rooms that had been closed for deep cleaning or maintenance.

“My guess is we’ll lose a fair amount for Friday night,” he said.

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