Hurricane Earl strengthens, could swipe U.S. coast

MIAMI (Reuters) – Hurricane Earl strengthened into a major Category 3 storm on Monday as it lashed the northeast Caribbean islands on a track that could swipe the U.S. East Coast in the next few days, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

But the Miami-based forecasters said it was too early to say which part of the U.S. eastern seaboard might be affected by Earl, the second major hurricane of the 2010 Atlantic season.

Earl had sustained winds of 125 mph/205 kph and additional strengthening was expected in the next two days, the center said.

The hurricane was moving west-northwest on a curving track that the National Hurricane Center said would take it within 300 miles east of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, on Thursday and Friday.

A direct hit could not be ruled out, and Earl was expected to bring drenching rain, dangerous seas and surf and gusting wind to the Atlantic Coast from North Carolina to New England and Canada, said Alex Sosnowski, a senior meteorologist for private forecaster AccuWeather.

“How nasty the weather gets in this region will depend on the exact track of Earl and its proximity to the coast,” Sosnowski said in a posting on the AccuWeather website.

If Earl swings farther west than expected, heavy rain could sweep the Interstate 95 corridor from North Carolina to Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York City, he said.

On its current path, Earl posed no threat to the Gulf of Mexico, where major U.S. oil and gas installations are located.

Hovensa LLC said operations were normal at its 500,000 barrel-per-day refinery on the island of St. Croix but that the refinery’s harbor and all other ports in the U.S. Virgin Islands had been closed because of Earl.

At 3 p.m. EST, the hurricane’s center was 60 miles northeast of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands and about 12O miles east-northeast of San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The hurricane buffeted the northernmost Leeward Islands of the Caribbean with fierce winds, driving rain and pounding waves as it passed on Monday.

The world’s three largest cruise lines — Carnival Corp, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line — changed their Caribbean itineraries and rerouted at least seven ships to avoid the storm.

POWER OUTAGES, TREES TOPPLED

Residents on the island of St. Martin/St. Maarten, its two halves respectively administered by France and the Netherlands, said Earl’s passage caused power outages and toppled trees.

“Now the wind is really blowing, incredibly strong … I’ve seen a lot of tree damage … I would certainly assume roofs off, I’m watching mine very carefully,” Steve Wright, general manager of the Grand Case Beach Club in Grand Case, St. Martin, told Reuters.

“It’s nothing that we haven’t seen before but I’m surprised at the ferocity of the winds right now,” he said.

There were no immediate reports of casualties.

In Antigua, some flooding in low-lying areas was reported. After the hurricane passed, Antigua and Barbuda Governor General Dame Louise Lake-Tack declared a national holiday to allow residents of the twin-island state to mop up.

The forecasters said hurricane conditions would gradually subside in the Virgin Islands on Monday, while storm conditions would spread over Puerto Rico through Monday evening.

The ports of the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Puerto Rican ports of Vieques, Culebra, Fajardo, and San Juan were closed, the U.S. Coast Guard said. Government offices and schools in eastern Puerto Rico were shut.

In the North Atlantic, Hurricane Danielle, a major Category 4 storm last week, was barely still a hurricane as its sustained winds fell to 75 mph. The storm was expected to lose its tropical characteristics later in the day. It was about 420 miles south southeast of Cape Race, Newfoundland.

The hurricane center said earlier a new Atlantic weather system carrying showers and thunderstorms, located about 1,050 miles east of the Lesser Antilles, had a 90 percent chance of becoming a tropical cyclone in the next 48 hours as it moved westward.

(Reporting by Pascal Fletcher, Tom Brown and Jane Sutton in Miami; Writing by Pascal Fletcher and Jane Sutton, Editing by Stacey Joyce)

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