September 2, 2010

Hurricane Earl Closes In, Causes Evacuations

Hurricane Earl continues to churn in the Atlantic as it closed in on the US eastern seaboard Thursday, causing tens of thousands of people to flee North Carolina's barrier islands to avoid the dangerous winds and surf.

Earl, the strongest Atlantic storm of 2010, was expected to not make landfall as it barrels up the east coast beginning late Thursday.

The National Hurricane Center (NHC) predicted the storm will produce hurricane strength winds as far as 90 miles from the eye of the hurricane, forcing coastal North Carolina residents to batten down in preparation.

While some storm-hardened residents were ignoring evacuation orders, most have chosen to leave the area in search of safer inland places. One resident, Chris Davidson, said he planned to take his wife and children about 100 miles inland, where his mother still lives.

"I'm probably going to leave town later this afternoon," Davidson, a hardware store manager, told AFP. "It seems like more people are taking it more seriously than in the past."

Earl was about 300 miles south of Cape Hatteras in the Outer Banks at 11:00 am EST. The powerful Category 4 storm was heading north at 18 miles per hour.

The NHC also issued a hurricane warning for coastal Massachusetts, while most other points up and down the east coast have been issued tropical storm warnings. President Barack Obama signed a disaster declaration for North Carolina, ordering federal assistance to be on stand-by to support response efforts if and when needed.

US officials ordered a mandatory evacuation for 30,000 residents and visitors on Hatteras Island, ruining vacation plans for thousands of people looking for a few last carefree days at the beach before summer's end.

Davidson said vacationers were lamenting the premature end of their summer, but local business owners bemoaned lost revenue they had been counting on. "It'll definitely hurt the local economy. This was a big weekend for the hotels, restaurants and other businesses, although for us, it could give us additional business once the storm is over, depending on how bad it is."

Davidson said Earl's unwelcome arrival had brought an unwelcome end to what had been a stellar year for coastal North Carolina. "It's been a better tourist season than usual," he said. "A lot of families are staying close, driving to the beach, sharing the cost of a beach house rental."

"A lot of businesses were depending on this weekend to finish the season strong," he said.

Meanwhile, NASA planned to send a pilotless aircraft to fly over Hurricane Earl on Thursday, in a scientific first to gather important data about the potentially devastating storm front bearing down on the eastern seaboard.

Once taking off from Edwards Air Force base in California, the Global Hawk drone plane will use a battery of instruments to study how hurricanes develop into awesome forces of nature.

"This is a real adventure for this airplane," said Commander Phil Hall, who will control the plane remotely from the military base on the US West Coast. "Going over a hurricane, for any airplane, is a bit risky, and we are kind of breaking a new frontier with this flight," he told AFP.


Image Caption: Photographed by an Expedition 24 crew member on the International Space Station, this is an oblique view that shows the eye (just left of center) of Hurricane Earl (at this time a category 4 but later downgraded to a category 3), centered just north of the Virgin Islands near 19.3 north latitude and 64.7 west longitude packing 115-kilometer winds. A Russian Soyuz vehicle is docked to the station (foreground). The photo was taken with a digital still camera using a 55mm lens. 


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