Goodbye Earl, hello holiday weekend

September 3, 2010 9:38:28 PM PDT
The remnants of Hurricane Earl dumped wind-driven rain on Cape Cod's gray-shingled cottages and fishing villages Friday night, but its close brush with the Northeast was less intense than feared only hours earlier.

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Earl swooped into New England waters as a tropical storm with winds of 70 mph after sideswiping North Carolina's Outer Banks, where it caused flooding but no injuries and little damage.

The storm's approach disrupted vacations on the unofficial final weekend of the summer, but the swirling rain it brought to Cape Cod, Nantucket Island and Martha's Vineyard on Friday was typical of the nor'easters that residents have been dealing with for generations.

Winds on Nantucket, closest to the storm's center, were blowing at around 30 mph, with gusts above 40 mph. The island got about 1.5 inches of rain through 11 p.m., 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.

In the hours and days before the storm, vacationers had pulled their boats from the water and canceled Labor Day weekend reservations on Nantucket. 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.

The storm was expected to pass about 50 to 75 miles southeast of Nantucket after midnight Friday. It had accelerated throughout the afternoon and evening and, National Weather Service meteorologist Rebecca Gould said, was expected to "fly by Nantucket."

The storm weakened faster than predicted and would continue to diminish, Gould said. "We may still see some wind damage on the outer Cape and Nantucket, but it's not going to be substantial by any means," she said.

Earl dulled quickly over the course of 36 hours. At midday Friday, it had dropped to a Category 1 storm - down from a fearsome Category 4 with 145 mph winds a day earlier. At 11 p.m., it was downgraded to a tropical storm.

Officials had warned New England residents against complacency, but many in Chatham, a fishing village at Cape Cod's eastern edge, didn't seem worried.

Tourists strolled past the bookstores, cafes and ice cream parlors on Main Street, where 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.

Late Friday, when it appeared Earl would not deliver its strongest punch, the town's beach turned festive. People ran on the sand and a teenager in an alien-like suit measured wind speeds.

"We're having a great time," said Jodie Charest, 36, of Chatham, who was there with her daughters, Alexis, 15, and Molly, 8. "We just ran down to the beach ... enjoying the rain in our faces and just enjoying the wind in our hair."

Earl stayed far off New Jersey and the eastern tip of New York's Long Island as it made its way north.

"Where is the hurricane everybody's been talking about?" asked Lenard LoBiondo as he stood with a drink and some relatives, telling truths on the deck outside the Liar's Saloon, a longtime locals hangout by a marina in Montauk, N.Y. As he spoke shortly after 9 p.m., a soft drizzle was falling and there was barely a breeze.

The storm did kick 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. Fog, wind and roiling seas also hindered the search for a boater who went missing before Earl's arrival early Friday afternoon in Portsmouth, N.H.

Officials warned that rip currents would continue to be a concern Saturday and Sunday. With offshore seas up to 20 feet, beaches also would continue to see big waves that could knock people off jetties or piers.

Rhode Island got a lot of rain, but there were no reports of damage or major flooding, said Lt. Col. Bruce Fletcher, spokesman for the Rhode Island National Guard.

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 Friday, 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.

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 traps. 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.

After skirting Massachusetts, Earl was headed for Canada. Tropical storms typically weaken when they enter the colder waters between Maine and Canada, but many Nova Scotia residents stocked up on bottled water and canned goods, fearing a repeat of 2003, when Hurricane Juan killed eight and caused millions of dollars in damage.

Others counted on Earl being downgraded. A biker rally expected to draw thousands in Digby, Nova Scotia, on Saturday wasn't canceled, and thousands of motorcycles lined the main street Friday night.

Bob Martin, of Halifax, said the looming storm wasn't a big deal.

"We're putting our motorcycles in a buddy's garage," he said. "We're just going to party and let the storm go by."

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Associated Press writers Mike Baker in Buxton, N.C.; Jeffrey Collins in Columbia, S.C.; Michelle Smith in Providence, R.I.; David Sharp in Portland, Maine; Lyle Moran, Denise Lavoie, Jay Lindsay and Rodrique Ngowi in Boston; Larry Neumeister in Montauk, N.Y.; and Rob Gillies in Halifax, Nova Scotia, contributed to this report.


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