N.C. coast keeps a wary eye on strengthening Earl

As Hurricane Earl strengthens, town officials, emergency planners and hardware stores along North Carolina’s coast are planning for the Category 4 storm in hopes that it will deliver no more than a glancing blow as it travels north.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — As Hurricane Earl strengthens, town officials, emergency planners and hardware stores along North Carolina’s coast are planning for the Category 4 storm in hopes that it will deliver no more than a glancing blow as it travels north.

"This is a powerful storm (with) a well-defined eye," said WRAL meteorologist Elizabeth Gardner.

As of 11 a.m. Tuesday, Earl had sustained winds of 135 mph and was likely to keep growing as it moved west-northwest toward the coast at 14 mph.

"Every consecutive run of the (weather) model is pushing it closer (to North Carolina's coast)," Gardner said. "The Outer Banks would take the hardest hit."

Earl lashed the northeastern Caribbean Monday with heavy rains and strong winds, causing flooding in low-lying parts of the Leeward Islands as it gained strength.

"It is a monster, right now," WRAL Chief Meteorologist Greg Fishel said Monday night. "To put it in some context, it's very similar to what Hurricane Hugo (in 1989) was at its maximum point."

One very likely potential track has the storm moving toward the North Carolina coast before turning to the northeast and moving roughly parallel to the eastern U.S. seaboard.

It's like it will affect North Carolina Thursday or Friday, Fishel said, but it's still too early to say how.

"As long as Earl continues to move to the west and northwest, that means when it does curve, it's going to make an impact further south along the coast," he said. "As it's predicted right now, it either stays just off shore or swipes the Outer Banks. The longer this motion continues the more problematic that becomes."

Most of the preparations along the Outer Banks are in the preliminary stages. Generators are being tested, gas tanks are being topped off and weather forecasts are being pored over for any indication that Earl will come any closer than several hundred miles off the state’s coast.

“Nothing we’ve seen yet is showing it will make landfall, so we’re preparing for rain and heavy surf right now,” said Chris Layton, town manager of Duck.

The Outer Banks, the fragile chain of barrier islands where Duck is located, is expected to get the brunt of any weather and ocean conditions churned up by Earl, ranging from rip currents to heavy rain.

“We’re not planning on an evacuation, but the red flags will probably be on the beach, meaning people have to stay out of the ocean,” said Currituck County Emergency Management Director Mary Beth Newns.

The U.S. Coast Guard, which is setting up a 24-hour command center to monitor the storm, said one of their top priorities will be trying to get swimmers out of the water.

"Especially during Labor Day, the last blast of summer, we're going to have a lot of visitors coming to the Crystal Coast and the Outer Banks," U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Anthony Popiel said. "We really need the visitors to stay on the beach, stay out of the water and stay safe."

In Duck and Nags Head, town officials were out videotaping their beaches Monday in case the storm causes significant erosion. Having before-and-after records of what beaches look like helps with storm recovery, especially if disaster relief funding is available.

In Nags Head, officials were also making sure the gas tanks of storm trucks, which rescue people in the event of flooding and help emergency crews get around in the aftermath of a storm, are full and that generators that can power town offices are in working order.

“It’s way too early to take in lifeguard stands and things like that, but obviously we’re watching the storm,” Nags Head spokeswoman Roberta Thuman said.

That wait-and-see approach also prevailed among customers at the six Ace Hardware stores in the Outer Banks, according to operations manager Kathy Seko, who was at the Manteo store on Monday.

“So far, it’s mostly been people making inquiries about what we have and what they might need if it gets worse,” Seko said.

Along with the standard supplies — tarp, duct tape, batteries, screws and drills for plywood — Seko said she is reminding customers not to forget items like manual can openers and even art supplies.

“Waiting for a storm can seem like forever, especially if the power’s out,” she said. “You need to pass the time somehow.”

Meanwhile, Danielle, which brought dangerous rip currents to the New England coast Monday, drifted out into the Atlantic and was downgraded to a tropical storm with maximum sustained winds at 70 mph.

Expected to take a similar path as Earl, Tropical Storm Fiona formed Monday afternoon about 890 miles east of the Leeward Islands with winds at 40 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Earl is expected to brush past the state just in time for the unofficial end of summer – Labor Day weekend.

"The good news is that by the time we get to the actual holiday weekend itself, Earl will be long gone," Fishel said. "The question is: Will the beach still be in good shape for the holiday weekend travelers?"


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