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Weakened Hurricane Earl lashes N.C. coast

/ Source: NBC, msnbc.com and news services

Hurricane Earl's powerful gusts and driving rains were churning over the Outer Banks of North Carolina in the dark of night, leaving residents and officials waiting for daybreak to see how much damage the storm's winds and waves could do.

The effects of the storm were also starting to be felt in southeastern Virginia, with National Weather Service meterologist Jeremy Schulz saying early Friday morning that rain bands stretched about 140 miles inland in North Carolina and up to the southern tip of the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia.

Hundreds of people along the North Carolina coast lost power because of the storm.

Earl weakened all day Thursday, winding down from a Category 4 storm with winds of 140 mph to a Category 2 with winds at 105.

But the storm still packed enough of a punch to send rain sideways and shake signs on the Outer Banks. On Nags Head, the tops of small trees bent in the howling gusts and beach grass was whipping back and forth on dunes leading to the ocean.

Sustained winds of about 30 mph were whipping the North Carolina coast. The U.S. Coast Guard station at Hatteras reported a gust of 67 mph just before midnight.

Progress Energy spokesman Jeff Brooks said there were 226 power outages in the company's coverage area early Friday morning between New Bern and Morehead City, southeast of the Outer Banks.  At points Thursday, more than 300 customers were without power, but some was restored.

Power company Dominion reported on its website that about 340 customers in Dare County were without power. The county includes some of the Outer Banks islands.

Brooks said the number of outages have stayed low because the strongest elements of the storm were staying off shore.

National Weather Service meteorologist Chris Collins said early Friday that Earl had produced little storm surge and only minor flooding in some coastal counties. Predictions of storm surges between 2 and 4 feet might be generous, he said.

Waves of up to 18 feet were predicted to smash into the North Carolina coast, leading to beach erosion and roadway overwash on the Outer Banks.

On Hatteras Island, the end of an already dilapidated wooden pier in Frisco collapsed after being battered by high surf Thursday, the Charlotte Observer newspaper reported. The pier had been closed to the public because of past storm damage.

It was the start of at least 24 hours of stormy, windy weather along the East Coast.

Hurricane-force winds extended 70 miles from the eye, while Tropical storm winds extended 205 miles out.

At 2 a.m. EDT Friday, Earl's center was 85 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras as the storm moved north-northeast at about 18 mph.

'What Mother Nature can do'
On Hatteras Island, wind-driven rain began shaking road signs around 9:30 p.m.

"It's interesting to me to just see what Mother Nature can do," said Jay Lopez, 36, of Frisco, as the wind howled through Buxton.

Federal, state and local authorities were waiting for daybreak to begin coastal damage patrols.

The Coast Guard planned an airplane flyover of the Outer Banks and prepared for search-and-rescue helicopter flights.

The emergency management chief for one coastal North Carolina county said that a high tide and the storm combined to wash over a portion of the Outer Banks highway N.C. 12 near Rodanthe.

Dare County Emergency Management Director Sandy Sanderson said it was closed, but that the overwash had been expected and nobody was out driving in the storm.

Collins said the eye of the hurricane was expected to get about 100 miles east of the Outer Banks.

Earlier, forecasters said it would get as close as 55 miles and protected the coast would be lashed by hurricane-force winds with a storm surge of up to 5 feet and waves 18 feet high.

"It's probably going to get a little hairy. We're prepared for it. My biggest concern is the ocean, not the wind," said Karen Denson Miller, who decided to stay on Hatteras Island with friends.

During its march up the Atlantic, Earl was expected snarl travelers' Labor Day weekend plans and strike a second forceful blow to vacation homes and cottages on Long Island, Nantucket Island and Cape Cod, which could get gusts up to 100 mph.

Much of New England should expect strong, gusty winds much like a nor'easter, along with fallen trees and downed power lines, forecasters said.

Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate on Thursday said people shouldn't wait for the next forecast to act. "This is a day of action. Conditions are going to deteriorate rapidly," he said.

Shelters were open in inland North Carolina, and officials on Nantucket Island, Mass., planned to set up a shelter at a high school on Friday.

North Carolina shut down ferry service between the Outer Banks and the mainland. Boats were being pulled from the water in the Northeast, and lobstermen in Maine set their traps out in deeper water to protect them.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Rhode Island Gov. Donald Carcieri declared a state of emergency. Similar declarations have also been made in North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland.

President Obama late Thursday signed an emergency declaration authorizing federal disaster relief efforts for southeastern Massachusetts.  He declared an emergency for North Carolina on Wednesday.

The declarations authorize the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA to coordinate all disaster relief efforts in the two areas.

A slow winding down was expected to continue as the storm moved into cooler waters, but forecasters warned the size of the storm's 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," National Hurricane Center Director Bill Read said.

"We're preparing for the worst," Nantucket assistant town manager Gregg Tivnan said Thursday.

Travel disruptions
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 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.

And the Army Corps of Engineers warned it would have to close the two bridges connecting Cape Cod to the rest of Massachusetts if winds got above 70 mph.

Clayton Smith and his colleagues at a yacht servicing company in New England scrambled to Nantucket to pull boats to safety, hoping to get about 40 vessels out of the water in two days.

"Complacency is a bad thing," Smith said. "It's better to be safe than sorry."

The one-time Category 4 storm is moving up the coast after battering islands across the northeastern Caribbean.

Behind Earl, Tropical Storm Fiona was whirling north with 50 mph winds about 360 miles south-southwest of Bermuda, where a tropical storm warning was in effect. Gaston weakened farther out in the Atlantic.