NE prepares for weakening Earl

Even as tropical storm weakens, disaster organizations make preparations just in case help is needed

BY JOHN PAPE | BALTIMORE | September 3, 2010

"Our people are ready; they remain ready if they’re needed. All preparations have been in place for several days and right now it’s just a wait-and-see situation"

—Rev Kevin Massey, Lutheran Disaster Response

After striking a glancing blow along the coasts of North Carolina and Virginia, Hurricane Earl set its sights on the vulnerable coastlines of Long Island, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

Earl was expected to come close to the New England coast late Friday evening, but it was not expected to make landfall.

The once-mighty Category 4 hurricane weakened considerably as it moved north along the Atlantic seaboard, dropping to a tropical storm as it moved into increasingly-cooler waters.

Still, forecasters like AccuWeather’s Evan Myers said the storm still packed a punch.

“Earl is expected to cause heavy rains, some flooding, storm surge and gale-force winds as it moves past Long Island and up the coast of Rhode Island and nears Cape Cod,” Myers said.

National Hurricane Center Director Bill Read agreed, adding a “slight deviation” of Earl’s projected course could bring the storm’s full force directly onto low-lying Cape Cod.

Even as Earl made its way up the Atlantic coast, faith-based organizations kept disaster response services on stand-by. The Rev. Kevin Massey with Lutheran Disaster Response said teams had been ready since Earl’s initial approach to North Carolina.

“Our people are ready; they remain ready if they’re needed. All preparations have been in place for several days and right now it’s just a wait-and-see situation,” Massey said. “If we’re needed, we’re prepared to go.”

Massey said his teams received no calls for help after Earl brushed North Carolina and Virginia and he was hopeful the case would be the same in New England.

The Rev. Tom Hazelwood, the assistant general secretary for the United Methodist Committee on Relief, said his organization had a similar experience with Earl along the southern Atlantic coast.

“At this point, no one has been needed. Just as the governor of North Carolina said, they dodged a bullet. There is only minor flooding in North Carolina and nothing anywhere else,” he said.

Hazelwood added disaster response teams remained ready if they are needed in Rhode Island or Massachusetts, but he felt confident there would be no major damage.

“Earl continues to weaken rapidly and I do not anticipate any problems anywhere in New England,” he said.

John Robinson, the director of national disaster response with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, said his organization had placed all response team members on alert and notified all local Presbyteries in the affected areas that help is available, if needed.

He also said preparation measures had gone “exceedingly well,” particularly since Earl is the first hurricane to threaten the eastern coastline in almost a decade.

“Everything, all of our assets, are ready to help,” Robinson said. “Now we’re just monitoring the situation to see what happens.”

Judy Bezon, associate director with Children’s Disaster Services, a division of the Church of the Brethren Disaster Ministries, said 70 volunteers from her organization were also standing by, not only for Earl but for any storm that may threaten throughout the remainder of the hurricane season.

“As it now stands, it looks like we won’t be needed for Earl, but our volunteers are ready to respond through October if (Tropical Storm) Gaston threatens the coast,” Bezon said.

Late Thursday evening, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick officially declared a state of emergency for the entire state, activating the National Guard for possible disaster response.

At Patrick’s request, President Barack Obama issued a Presidential Emergency Declaration for the state, allowing federal agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA to provide any needed emergency measures to protect property and public health and safety.

“We are doing everything possible to keep people safe,” Patrick said. “The level of communication and coordination among the state agencies, and between state, federal and local agencies has been exceptional and I’m confident we’re well prepared for this storm.”

In neighboring Rhode Island, Governor Donald Carcieri signed a similar disaster declaration. Carcieri stressed the move was only “precautionary.”

“The public should not misinterpret this declaration of disaster emergency,” he said. “This declaration is a precautionary and necessary step to ensure that we have full access to the state and federal resources we may need in advance of Hurricane Earl.”

Carcieri also reiterated the need for the public to be prepared for the storm and pay close attention to its progress.

“Hurricane Earl appears to be a major rain and wind event for Rhode Island with tropical force winds, heavy rainfall, high surf and severe rip currents. Rhode Islanders should make preparations now, before the storm arrives. This is a fast moving storm and people should take precautions, monitor the storm carefully and be smart and be safe.”

The governor said while Rhode Island would probably not take a direct hit from the storm, residents could see three to five inches of rain. He also warned Interstate 95, the main thoroughfare through the state, could flood.

William Riccio, public works director in the posh resort community of Newport, said crews were on standby to clear roads of debris, if needed.

By mid-afternoon Friday, Amtrak cancelled service on its heavily-traveled New York-to-Boston route because of the advancing storm. Commuters on trains at the time of the cancellation were returned to the stations where they boarded.

Rhode Island’s Block Island Ferry suspended service between the island and Point Judith early Friday morning because of rough seas.

For the most part, air service into Boston continued as usual. Thomas Kinton, Jr., executive director of the Massachusetts Port Authority, which operates Boston’s Logan International Airport, said he did not believe commercial air traffic would be severely impacted by Earl. One small carrier serving Cape Cod, Cape Air, suspended flights at midday on Friday until after Earl’s passage. The airline expected to resume flights on Saturday.

Even as Earl targeted New England, tourists were returning to North Carolina’s Outer Banks in hopes of salvaging a Labor Day holiday. That was good news for many of the area’s tourist-related businesses that feared Earl would drive visitors away for the normally-lucrative Labor Day weekend.

Some minor damage was reported and some low-lying areas experienced flooding as Earl brushed the Outer Banks and barrier islands, but everything was expected to be back to normal by Saturday.

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