NAGS HEAD, N.C. — Hurricane Earl steamed toward the Eastern Seaboard on Wednesday as communities from North Carolina to New England kept a close eye on the forecast, worried that even a slight shift in the storm’s predicted offshore track could put millions of people in the most densely populated part of the country in harm’s way.
Vacationers along North Carolina’s dangerously exposed Outer Banks took advantage of the typical picture-perfect day just before a hurricane arrives to pack their cars and flee inland, cutting short their summer just before Labor Day weekend.
The governors of North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland declared states of emergency, sea turtle nests on one beach were scooped up and moved to safety, and the crew of the Navy’s USS Cole rushed to get home to Norfolk, Va., on Wednesday ahead of the bad weather. The destroyer was supposed to return later this week from a seven-month assignment fighting piracy off Somalia.
Farther up the East Coast, emergency officials urged people to have disaster plans and supplies ready and weighed whether to order evacuations as they watched the latest maps from the National Hurricane Center — namely, the “cone of uncertainty” showing the broad path the storm could take.
Also on Wednesday, the seventh tropical storm of the season formed far out in the Atlantic. Tropical Storm Gaston had sustained winds of 40 mph and is expected to strengthen into a hurricane this weekend as it moves toward the Leeward Islands.
Tropical Storm Fiona remained north of the Caribbean with winds of 60 mph and is expected to move toward Bermuda over the next several days.
Earl was expected to reach the North Carolina coast late today and wheel to the northeast, staying offshore while making its way up the Eastern Seaboard. But forecasters said it could move in closer, perhaps coming ashore in North Carolina, crossing New York’s Long Island and passing over the Boston metropolitan area and Cape Cod.
That could make the difference between modestly wet and blustery weather on the one hand, and dangerous storm surge, heavy rain and hurricane-force winds on the other.
“Everyone is poised and ready to pull the trigger if Earl turns west, but our hope is that this thing goes out to sea and we’re all golfing this weekend,” said Peter Judge, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Earl was a powerful Category 4 hurricane centered more than 680 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras, N.C., with winds of 135 mph.
The only mandatory evacuations were for 30,000 residents and visitors ordered to leave Hatteras Island on the Outer Banks. Dare County spokeswoman Dorothy Toolan said there was no official notification of the evacuation order, and many residents didn’t appear worried.
Nancy Scarborough, who manages the Hatteras Cabanas, said locals are ready to help each other and ride out a hurricane, even if they are cut off from the mainland for days.
“I worry about not being able to get back here”’ she said. “I’d rather be stuck on this side than that side.”
About 5,000 tourists were ordered to leave Ocracoke Island to the south, and officials in Carteret County were evacuating low-lying areas, but didn’t know how many people would be affected.
The North Carolina National Guard also is deploying 80 troops to help and Gov. Beverly Perdue sent a letter to President Barack Obama requesting a federal emergency declaration before landfall in anticipation of damages.
Just a light breeze was stirring and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky along the Outer Banks — a ribbon of barrier islands a dozen miles or more off the mainland, connected to the rest of the world by a couple of bridges and a ferry. Along the lone highway, hundreds of cars backed up at one of the bridges.
Brittany Grippaldi and her family took advantage of the good weather to pack up their Ford Explorer in Hatteras and head home to New Jersey.
“It’s sad because reality hasn’t really set in because it is so beautiful out. It’s like, `Oh, I don’t want to leave this,’ but it’s like the calm before the storm,” said Grippaldi, who hoped to beat the traffic.