Hurricane Earl weakened to a Category 3 storm Wednesday, as it threatened to sideswipe the U.S. East Coast, the Associated Press reported. A hurricane watch that had been effect for the North Carolina coast was nevertheless extended to the Virginia coast.
Earl’s maximum sustained winds have decreased to near 125 miles per hour, but the National Hurricane Center in Miami said fluctuations in strength were possible over the next 48 hours, the AP reported. Early Wednesday, Earl was located about 815 miles south-southeast of Cape Hatteras, N.C., and moving northwest.
On Tuesday, Earl had been classified a Category 4 storm, packing 135-mile-per-hour winds as it moved north from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Forecasters said Tuesday it was likely to skirt North Carolina’s Outer Banks in the wee hours of Friday morning, before moving up to New England, bringing heavy rain, wind and dangerous rip currents as it goes up the coast.
But they warned that the storm could easily veer west in the coming days, becoming the first hurricane to hit the U.S. this season. They issued a hurricane watch late Tuesday for more than 200 miles of the North Carolina coast; hurricane conditions are possible within 48 hours.
Federal, state and local officials began implementing emergency plans, reminding residents of shelter locations, clearing storm drains and refueling tools and vehicles. The Federal Emergency Management Agency flew staff from the West Coast to the Northeast to bulk up those operations, administrator Craig Fugate said. Mr. Fugate urged coastal residents and vacationers to track weather reports and prepare emergency supplies and contingency plans.
“It’s too early to rule out anything other than Earl’s a very large storm and a very powerful storm,” Mr. Fugate said in a conference call with reporters.
The last time a major hurricane hit a U.S. land mass was in 2005, when Wilma pounded the Florida Gulf Coast, causing an estimated $20 billion in damage.
Earl is the fifth major storm and third hurricane of the current Atlantic storm season, which lasts from June 1 to Nov. 30. Federal forecasters predicted earlier this month that this year’s Atlantic hurricane season would be more active than normal, with four to six hurricanes of Category 3 or greater, with winds of at least 111 miles per hour.
Earl is looming at an inopportune time, as Labor Day is traditionally one of the busiest weekends for coastal tourism, and the unofficial end of the high season. A study by automobile group AAA found that 4.8 million people in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania planned to travel more than 50 miles from home this weekend. That’s up 12% from last year. An additional 5.9 million people in the Southeast, from Virginia to Florida, plan to travel this weekend, up 7.3% from last year.
Many of those people plan to head to the beach, AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman John B. Townsend II said. Surfers in southeastern North Carolina hit local surf shops Tuesday for board repair and supplies, as they prepared for waves as high as eight feet above normal. But Earl is also likely to create dangerous rip currents, warned Warren Lee, director of New Hanover County’s emergency management department.