Earl downgraded as it smacks New England

/ Source: NBC, msnbc.com and news services

Earl weakened to a tropical storm as it brushed Cap Cod and Nantucket with pelting rain, strong gusts and pounding surf early Saturday as steamed past New England, disrupting people's vacations on the unofficial final weekend of the short New England summer.

Packing winds of just 70 mph, the storm swirled up the Eastern Seaboard after sideswiping North Carolina's Outer Banks, where it caused flooding but no injuries and little damage. For the most part, it was expected to swing wide of New York City and Long Island, and much of the rest of the mid-Atlantic region, but pass close by Cape Cod, Nantucket Island and Martha's Vineyard late Friday night, bringing rain and high winds.

Winds on Nantucket, closest to the storm's center, blew around 30 mph, with gusts above 40 mph. The island got about 1.5 inches of rain through 11 p.m. ET, with more expected. Flooding of low-lying areas was expected and damage from tropical storm-force winds was still possible, officials said.

The well-to-do resort island and old-time whaling port briefly saw some localized flooding, but it was typical of summer storms and had cleared within hours, Nantucket Assistant Town Manager Gregg Tivnan said. There were no evacuations, power outages or even reports of trees down, he said.

"The south side of the island certainly did take a hit. We'll assess the damage and the erosion to the beach tomorrow, but so far don't have any report of major damage," Tivnan said late Friday.

On Cape Cod, the storm roared across Chatham's Lighthouse Beach while leaving Hyannis with a steady rain and flat harbor, The Boston Globe reported.

Earlier in the day vacationers pulled their boats from the water and canceled Labor Day weekend reservations on Nantucket, the well-to-do resort island and old-time whaling port. Shopkeepers boarded up their windows. Swimmers in New England were warned to stay out of the water — or off the beach altogether — because of the danger of getting swept away by high waves.

Airlines canceled dozens of flights into New England, and Amtrak suspended train service between New York and Boston.

As of Friday afternoon, no large-scale evacuations were ordered for the Cape Cod area, where fishermen and other hardy year-round residents have been dealing with gusty nor'easters for generations.

"We kind of roll with the punches out here. It's not a huge deal for us," said Scott Thomas, president of the Nantucket Chamber of Commerce.

At 2 a.m. ET Saturday, Earl was a tropical storm, down from a fearsome Category 4 hurricane with 145 mph winds a day earlier, the National Hurricane Center said. Earl's winds were down from 85 mph earlier in the day. Its center was located about 105 miles east-southeast of Nantucket and moving northeast at 30 mph.

As Earl lost steam and veered farther east, the National Hurricane Center reduced the New England areas under a hurricane warning to tropical storm warnings for Cape Cod, Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, the elite vacation spot that President Barack Obama left just last weekend. Earl was still forecast to leave one to three inches of rain in eastern new England and bring rain and strong winds to portions of Nova Scotia on Saturday afternoon.

The last time the Cape was hit directly by a hurricane was 1991, when Bob brought 75 mph gusts that ripped through the region's grassy dunes, snapped trees and tore roofs off the weathered gray homes.

Few seemed worried about a repeat Friday in Chatham, a fishing village at Cape Cod's eastern edge where tourists strolled past the bookstores, cafes and ice cream parlors on Main Street. A few stores had put plywood over their windows, including the Ben Franklin Old Fashioned Variety Store. "C'mon Earl, we're ready for you," a handwritten note read.

Earl was expected to remain more than 150 miles off New Jersey and the eastern tip of New York's Long Island as it made its way north. But it kicked up dangerous riptides up and down the coast. In New Jersey, two young men apparently died earlier this week in the rough surf caused by Earl and the hurricane before it, Danielle.

Rain from Earl's outer bands forced a 25-minute delay at the U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York City.

North Carolina mops up
On the Outer Banks, officials had urged tens of thousands of visitors and residents to leave the dangerously exposed islands as the storm closed in, but hundreds chose to wait it out in their boarded-up homes.

Earl's winds had dropped to 105 mph by the time the storm brushed past the ribbon of islands before dawn, and the storm center got no closer to shore than 85 miles. Hurricane-force winds, which start at 74 mph, apparently did not even reach the Outer Banks, said the National Hurricane Center's chief forecaster, James Franklin.

North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue her state "dodged a bullet" as the storm weakened overnight.

Noting no serious damage, she urged people to get back out for the Labor Day weekend to "have a little fun and spend some money."

Nancy Scarborough of Cape Hatteras said she had about a foot of water underneath her home, which is on stilts. "Once it goes down, it shouldn't take long to get things back together," she said.

Northeast preps for worst
In Rhode Island, the popular tourist destination Block Island was expecting gusts as high as 60 mph. Gov. Don Carcieri warned of possible flooding on the mainland, and asked people to stay off the roads, but added: "Everything looks like we've dodged this."

Twenty miles out off the Maine coast, lobstermen on Matinicus Island were cautious after getting fooled by Hurricane Bill, which missed the mainland last year but sent tides and rough seas that destroyed their gear. This time, they moved their gear to the safety of deeper water or pulled their traps out altogether.

At Maine's Acadia National Park, officials closed most of a road where a 7-year-old girl was swept to her death by a 20-foot wave last year while watching the swells from Bill.

"I am happy it got downgraded but it's better to be prepared," said Taylor Evangelista, 28, manager of the Soft as a Grape gift shop, which had boarded up its windows and hung a sign that read "Customers Welcome, Earl Go Away."

The storm was hurting business heading into the weekend when the United States celebrates Labor Day, typically considered the end of the summer vacation period.

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

"This is the last big weekend," Evangelista said, adding that she hoped people would return on Saturday, after the storm had passed.

Business owners in nearby Hyannis, close to the Kennedy family's famous waterfront compound in Hyannis Port, cited similar worries.

"I'm concerned about my windows," Betsy Young, 48, said outside her Soho Arts Company shop.

She said this weekend was usually the last busy weekend of the year for area retailers. "I'm going to lose Friday and probably most of Saturday," preparing for and the cleaning up after the storm, she said.

"I was here for Hurricane Bob. That was pretty serious, this one is supposed to be a lot smaller," said Tom Huckman, 46, of Harwich.

Some vacationers were hoping to salvage their holiday weekends after Earl passed.

"I was toying with the idea of taking my boat out (of the water), but I decided to ride it out. It's not going to be that long a storm," said Scott Briley, 44, of North Andover, Mass.

As oil refineries, drilling platforms and nuclear power plants along the Atlantic coast monitored Earl's path, EnCana Corp said it suspended drilling and pulled personnel from a Nova Scotia rig in Canada.

Imperial Oil Ltd shut down its Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, refinery as a precaution.

Exxon Mobil said it had pulled nonessential staff from its Sable field in offshore Nova Scotia.

In Nova Scotia, where Earl is due to make landfall early on Saturday, residents stocked up on emergency supplies.

Behind Earl, Tropical Storm Fiona weakened as it moved north over the open Atlantic toward Bermuda. It had top sustained winds of 45 mph and was expected to weaken further as it passed near the British territory on Saturday.