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Atlantic coast braces for Earl

Evacuation order posted for NC coast as volunteer organizations ready plans in case hurricane hits the coast

BY JOHN PAPE | CAPE HATTERAS, NC | September 1, 2010

Even while computer models were predicting Hurricane Earl would only brush the Atlantic seaboard, emergency officials in North Carolina and Virginia were taking no chances Wednesday, preparing to meet the threat of potential hurricane force winds and storm surge along vulnerable coastal areas.

With top sustained winds exceeding 135 miles per hour, Earl was expected to brush the North Carolina coastline Thursday or Friday at the start of the long Labor Day holiday.

Forecast models indicate the storm could then turn north or northeast potentially threatening literally millions of residents from Virginia to Maine.

Forecasters warned the Category 4 storm will impact much of the eastern U.S. coastline and emergency preparedness officials as far geared up for the storm.

The governors of North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland declared states of emergency as Earl bore down on the U.S. coast.

On Wednesday morning, North Carolina officials also issued an evacuation order for Cape Hatteras, Hatteras Island, Ocracoke Island and other barrier islands that make up the state’s Outer Banks, many of which are barely above sea level.

The evacuation order came shortly after the National Hurricane Center upgraded the hurricane watch for the Outer Banks to a hurricane warning.

Dorothy Toolan, spokesperson for the Dare County Office of Emergency Management said the evacuation order should be taken seriously.

“These are some very low-lying areas and access is limited, so we issued the evacuation order before the area began feeling the full effects of Earl. We simply cannot afford to wait because once the seas and winds rise, there may be no way off the islands,” Toolan said.

At the time the evacuation order was issued, forecasters expected the storm to pass within 75 miles off the Outer Banks. Given the size and strength of Earl, even a close brush would mean the flood prone Outer Banks would experience hurricane - or near hurricane-strength winds along with some flooding from the storm surge.

Even as state and local emergency management officials prepared for Earl, nonprofit and faith-based disaster response organizations spent much of Wednesday tracking the storm to see where volunteers and help might be needed.

The Rev. Tom Hazelwood, Assistant General Secretary for the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), said his organization was prepared to step in and work with the church’s regional conferences to provide assistance to any areas hit by the storm.

“UMCOR is standing ready if there is a need for response,” Hazelwood said. “Should Hurricane Earl come ashore, we will be ready to work with the affected annual conference. We are in touch with each of the annual conferences along the Eastern seaboard and they stand ready along with us to respond, if necessary.”

The Rev. Kevin Massey with Lutheran Disaster Response said his organization, too, was ready to provide relief wherever Earl may hit.

“We had a conference call this morning with all our East Coast affiliates, went over our plans and assets and we feel everything’s in readiness. We’re still looking at the storm track to see where it may hit, but the teams feel pretty good that we are ready regardless of where we may be needed,” Massey said.

He also said disaster response teams in New England were also prepared should Earl march up the coastline.

“We feel Massachusetts and Rhode Island may be at risk, depending on the track the storm takes, so teams up there are ready as well,” he said.

Massey noted flooding in Massachusetts and Rhode Island earlier in the year helped response teams in those areas become better prepared to step in following a natural disaster.

“Through that experience, we’ve seen a growth in capacity, strengthened relationships with other agencies and have a higher overall state of readiness,” he said. “We feel we’re ready wherever Earl strikes.”

Additionally, the North Carolina Convention of the Southern Baptist Church has its disaster response teams standing by. State coordinator Galen Moss said personnel were ready to move in as soon as possible after the storm strikes.

“We’ve got our volunteers ready, we’ve got our equipment specialists on alert and we’ve been in contact with our churches down east about hosting us if we’re needed,” Moss said. “Right now, we’re just waiting to see where we might be needed.

Representatives from the Red Cross and Salvation Army said their organizations were gearing up to provide shelter, food and other relief services in affected areas.

Regardless of whether Earl causes significant physical damage along North Carolina’s Outer Banks, the timing of the storm could not be worse for many of the area’s tourism-dependent businesses. John Bone, president of the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce, said the storm would effectively wipe out the normally-profitable Labor Day weekend for local businesses.

“It’s already a weak economy and many of our businesses count on these holiday weekends to make their year. We certainly hope Earl steers a course back out into the Atlantic, but regardless of what he does, he’s already damaged our businesses in terms of revenue,” Bone said. “Labor Day is usually the last big summer weekend and we’re going to lose out on it.”

North Carolina’s State Emergency Operations Center was activated at 8 a.m. Wednesday and the state’s Division of Emergency Management began working with local emergency managers to coordinate preparation and evacuation efforts. An emergency shelter was opened at North Pitt High School in the Pitt County community of Bethel.

State emergency management officials called Wednesday “a crucial time for people living in storm-surge zones and in flood plains” and urged those ordered to evacuate to do so immediately. Law enforcement officials were assigned to evacuation zones to secure private property and help with the safety of evacuees.

People living in vulnerable areas, such as storm-surge zones, flood plains, mobile homes and camper or RV parks, were urged to evacuate whether or not they were in a mandatory evacuation area.

By midday Wednesday, choppy seas and dangerous rip currents already were being experienced along the Outer Banks.

Residents living outside storm-surge evacuation zone and planning to shelter in their homes were encouraged to finish boarding up windows and glass doors, clear property of outdoor furniture and store trash cans, toys and other property that could blow away.

The state emergency operations center also recommended that persons evacuating Ocracoke and Hatteras Islands register with the Red Cross “Safe and Well” program so friends and family know their plans.

In neighboring Virginia, Gov. Bob McDonnell authorized state agencies to take precautionary action to prepare for any potential impacts along the eastern Virginia coast, particularly in the vulnerable Hampton Roads area.

Although forecast models showed Earl having only a minimal impact on Virginia, McDonnell said a slight change in the storm’s direction could put thousands of residents and Labor Day visitors at risk.

"The current forecast has Hurricane Earl passing east of Virginia later this week. However, a change in the storm's path could bring hazardous weather conditions to eastern Virginia,” McDonnell said in a statement.

Wednesday morning, the Virginia Emergency Operations Center increased its readiness and staffing and began coordinating preparations with the National Weather Service, local governments and state agencies.

The state’s department of transportation sent crews out to make sure storm drains in the Hampton Roads region were clear of any debris or obstructions. The Virginia National Guard began preparations for a possible post-storm response.

The Virginia Department of Social Services and Virginia Department of Health were placed on standby and prepared to open state-managed shelters, if needed.

Meanwhile forecasters were keeping an eye on the Atlantic as Tropical Storm Gaston formed Wednesday, joining Tropical Storm Fiona. Fiona is expected to turn north and track east of Earl while Gaston is predicted to become a major hurricane and could track across some of the Caribbean islands by early next week.

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