NORTH CAROLINA -- Forecasters say Hurricane Earl is weakening as it passes over North Carolina's Outer Banks but is still packing powerful winds as it heads up the Eastern Seaboard. The National Hurricane Center says Earl's winds are now at about 105 mph. A new tropical storm warning has been issued for New England from the coasts of Massachusetts to Maine.
Gusts above 40 mph made signs shake and the heavy rain fall sideways in Buxton, the southeasternmost tip of the Outer Banks.
North Carolina is the first and potentially most destructive stop on the storm's projected journey up the Eastern Seaboard.
Earl's eye is some 100 miles south-southeast of Cape Hatteras but isn't expected to make landfall until perhaps western Nova Scotia, Canada, in the next few days. Earl's arrival could mark the start of at least 24 hours of stormy, windy weather along the East Coast. During its march up the Atlantic, it could snarl travelers' Labor Day weekend plans and strike a second forceful blow to the vacation homes and cottages on Long Island, Nantucket Island and Cape Cod.
It was unclear exactly how close Earl's center and its strongest winds would get to land. But Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate said people shouldn't wait for the next forecast to act.
"This is a day of action. Conditions are going to deteriorate rapidly," he said.
Shelters were open in inland North Carolina, and officials on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, planned to set up a shelter at a high school on Friday. North Carolina shut down ferry service between the Outer Banks and the mainland. Boats were being pulled from the water in the Northeast, and lobstermen in Maine set their traps out in deeper water to protect them.
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Rhode Island Gov. Donald Carcieri declared a state of emergency. Similar declarations have also been made in North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland.
Forecasters say Hurricane Earl has weakened to a Category 2 storm though they warn it is still powerful as it heads toward North Carolina and the Eastern Seaboard.
The National Hurricane Center says Earl's winds are now at about 110 mph and could weaken further. Still, the coast is expected to be lashed by winds of hurricane strength more than 74 mph for a couple of hours.
The first bands of heavy rain hit the long ribbon of the Outer Banks Thursday night. The downpours started in several bursts.
Hurricane force winds are extending out 70 miles from the center of the storm that is 160 miles south-southeast of Cape Hatteras. A slow winding down was expected to continue as the storm moved into cooler waters, but forecasters warned the size of the storm's wind field was increasing, similar to what happened when Hurricane Katrina approached the Gulf Coast five years ago.
"It will be bigger. The storm won't be as strong, but they spread out as they go north and the rain will be spreading from New England," National Hurricane Center Director Bill Read said.
The eye of the storm was expected to pass about 50 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. But even at that distance, Earl could have a punishing effect, since hurricane-force winds of 74 mph or more extended 70 miles from its center and tropical storm-force winds of at least 35 mph reached more than 200 miles out.
Hundreds of the Outer Banks' more hardy residents gassed up their generators and planned to hunker down at home behind their boarded-up windows, even though officials warned them that it could be three days before they could expect any help and that storm surge could again slice through the islands. It took crews two months to fill the breach and rebuild the only road to the mainland when Hurricane Isabel carved a 2,000-foot-wide channel in 2003.
"It's kind of nerve-racking, but I've been through this before," said 65-year-old Herma De Gier, who has lived in the village of Avon since 1984. De Gier said she will ride out the storm at a neighbor's house but wants to be close enough to her own property so she can quickly deal with any damage.
Forecasters said that after Earl passes the Outer Banks, a kink in the jetstream over the eastern U.S. should push the storm away from the coast.