MIAMI â€” From North Carolina north to the Canadian Maritimes, coastal residents began bracing for a Labor Day weekend with gusty winds, nasty seas and potential evacuations if Hurricane Earl ventures too close for comfort.
Though forecasters still expected Earlâ€™s dangerous center to stay just off the coast, the top federal emergency manager cautioned Tuesday that low-lying communities could be urged to evacuate in advance of what could be a surge of seawater driven ashore by the large and powerful Category 4 storm.
â€œWe do not have a forecast landfall but this is a very large system,â€ said Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. â€œWe do expect impacts along the coast.â€
In North Carolina, which has not been hit by a major hurricane since Fran struck Cape Fear in 1996, residents were closely watching that â€œcone of uncertainty.â€
â€œMy guests are calling and they donâ€™t know what to do and I donâ€™t know what to tell them,â€ Dave
Dawson, owner of the oceanfront Cape Hatteras Motel in Buxton, N.C., told The Associated Press.
Packing 135 mph winds and stronger gusts, Earl could strengthen in the next two days but was expected to gradually weaken as it moves into cooler waters by late Thursday or Friday, about the time it could be nearing North Carolinaâ€™s Outer Banks as a major Category 3 storm.
From there, a low-pressure trough driving off the East Coast should deflect Earl and turn it more northeast, away from the coast â€” but possibly not without side-swiping much of the Eastern Seaboard.
Bill Read, director of the U.S. National Hurricane Center, said there was still considerable uncertainty about the timing of that turn. With hurricane-force winds extending 70 miles and tropical force winds out 200 miles, there wasnâ€™t much wiggle room.
â€œEven a small error of 100 miles in the wrong direction could have huge impacts,â€ Read said, during a media conference call with Fugate Tuesday.
At 5 p.m., the National Hurricane Center posted a hurricane watch from Surf City, N.C., to the
North Carolina-Virginia border, meaning effects could be felt within 48 hours. Thatâ€™s likely to be extended in coming days because Earl is expected to remain a major hurricane as it moves up
the coast toward New England by Saturday.
Even a brushing by the large, powerful storm could down power lines and trees and wash over coastal roads as it parallels the coast. The pounding surf is also expected to chew up beaches and coastal areas and worsen hazardous rip current conditions kicked up last week by now-defunct Hurricane Danielle.
On Tuesday, as Earl passed some 200 miles to the east of the Turks and Caicos Islands, residents hunkered down, as gusty winds whipped palm fronds and rocked fishing boats on their moorings.
â€œWe can hear the waves crashing against the reef really seriously. Anybody who hasnâ€™t secured their boats by now is going to regret it,â€ Kirk Graff, owner of Capt. Kirks Flamingo Cove Marina, told The Associated Press by phone as he watched the darkening skies.
Tropical storm warnings were also posted for the Southeastern Bahamas, which should begin to feel the lashes of Earlâ€™s outer bands by Wednesday.
In Puerto Rico, FEMA said nearly 200,000 people remained without power. In the Virgin Islands, an estimated 90 percent of residents were waiting for power to be restored. Downed trees aside, there was no major damage or serious injuries reported in the Caribbean islands Earl drenched.
In North Carolina, the National Weather Service said waves could reach 25 feet off the stateâ€™s barrier islands as Earl approached. Gov. Bev Perdue issued a statement urging residents to have their emergency plans and supplies ready, but the state had not yet decided to move emergency equipment into place.
â€œHopefully this storm will move through the area quickly, so that folks planning to go to our beaches this weekend can still enjoy the long Labor Day weekend,â€ Perdue said. â€œBut, above all, we want everyone to be safe.â€
Tropical Storm Fiona, meanwhile, was following in Earlâ€™s path and was expected to begin turning northward by Wednesday. The National Hurricane Center did not expect the storm, with winds at 40 mph, to grow much stronger or threaten land over the next few days.