By Michelle Donley and Christopher Hinton
BOSTON — Hurricane Earl weakened Friday as it sped north toward New England, lashing coastal communities with heavy winds and rain while disrupting travel on the eve of a three-day weekend.
By Friday afternoon, the eye of the storm was about 290 miles southwest of Nantucket and veering to the north-northeast, a course that will carry it farther out in the Atlantic Ocean. Maximum sustained winds have dropped to 80 miles per hour, 6 mph above hurricane force, and further weakening is expected, the National Hurricane Center said.
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On its current path, the storm is expected to sweep past Cape Cod, Mass., overnight and brush Nova Scotia today.
President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency for Massachusetts ahead of the storm to facilitate federal disaster funding if needed.
Amtrak suspended train service between Boston and New York after a tree toppled onto its overhead power lines in Connecticut. Citing forecasts of more severe weather through the evening, Amtrak said it was returning passengers stranded on the New York-Boston line to their stations.
North Carolina beaches absorbed the brunt of the storm overnight Thursday. Heavy rains flooded roads and strong winds downed trees and power lines but local officials had no reports of casualties and said property damage appeared to be minor.
Despite losing much of its punch, Earl is still a Category 1 storm on the Saffir-Simpson scale, which according to the hurricane center, packs “very dangerous winds” in which flying and falling debris remain a danger to livestock and people.
Earl had been a much-stronger Category 4 storm earlier in the week, with wind speeds topping 135 mph.
Hurricane warnings remained in effect from Woods Hole, Mass., eastward around Cape Cod to Sagamore Beach, Mass., including the popular summer-vacation spots of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.
A hurricane watch was in effect for parts of Nova Scotia.
Tropical-storm warnings covered parts of Virginia, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Maine as well as Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.
The weather service predicted a dangerous storm surge will raise water levels as much as 2 to 4 feet above ground level in areas of North Carolina, the lower Chesapeake Bay and Massachusetts.
The surge will be “accompanied by large and destructive waves,” it added.
Air carriers serving the region, such as American, US Airways and AirTran, waived fees for customers who want to change travel plans.
There were some cancellations among the regional carriers, such as US Airways Express, Continental Airlines’ Express and Connection carriers, and for budget-carriers Southwest Airlines and JetBlue.