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 Thursday 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 Thursday night. Gusts above 40 mph made signs shake and the heavy rain fall sideways in Buxton, the southeasternmost tip of the Outer Banks.
Earl's winds were slowing, from 140 mph early Thursday to 105 mph, Category 2 strength, by late Thursday. 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.
National Weather Service meteorologist Hal Austin said the eye was expected to get as close as 55 miles east of the Outer Banks about 2 a.m. The coast is expected to be lashed by hurricane-force winds for a couple of hours with a storm surge of up to 5 feet and waves 18 feet high.
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 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 western Nova Scotia, Canada, where it could still be a hurricane, Ed Rappaport, National Hurricane Center deputy director, said.
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Rhode Island Gov. Donald Carcieri declared a state of emergency. Similar declarations were made in North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland.
As of Thursday night, 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 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," Bill Read, National Hurricane Center director, said.
In North Carolina, the end of an already dilapidated wooden pier in Frisco, one of the villages on Hatteras Island, collapsed after being battered by high surf Thursday. It had been closed because of past storm damage.
Hundreds of the Outer Banks' more hardy residents gassed up their generators and planned to hunker down behind their boarded-up windows, even though officials warned them that it could be three days before they could expect any help and that storm surge could again slice through the islands. It took crews two months to fill the breach and rebuild the only road to the mainland when Hurricane Isabel carved a 2,000-foot-wide channel in 2003.
Forecasters said that after Earl passes the Outer Banks, a kink in the jetstream over the eastern U.S. should push the storm away from the coast, guiding it like a marble in a groove.
Earl is expected to move north-northeast for much of today, staying away from New Jersey and the other mid-Atlantic states, but passing very close to Long Island, Cape Cod and Nantucket, which could get gusts up to 100 mph. The storm is expected to finally move ashore in Canada sometime Saturday afternoon.
The storm is likely to disrupt travel as people try to squeeze in a few more days of summer vacation over Labor Day. Continental Airlines canceled 50 departures from Newark, N.J., on its Continental Connection and Continental Express routes along the East Coast, beginning Thursday night. Other airlines were watching the forecast and waiving fees for changing flights. Amtrak canceled trains to Newport News, near Virginia's coast, from Richmond, Va., and Washington. Ferry operators across the Northeast warned their service would likely be interrupted.