Hurricane Earl may prompt evacuations along the U.S. Atlantic Coast even if it does not make landfall, because it may come close enough to trigger storm surge flooding and high winds, officials said Tuesday.
The National Hurricane Center issued a hurricane watch for most of the North Carolina coast, from Surf City, North Carolina, to the state's northern border with Virginia, including the Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds. It called Hurricane Earl "large and intense."
Earl, which quickly morphed into a Category 4 hurricane on Monday, dealt a glancing blow to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, downing trees and knocking out power lines. Tuesday, the hurricane was passing the Turks and Caicos.
Earl will approach within 60 miles of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, early Friday morning, according to CNN meteorologist Sean Morris. Hurricane-force winds will be possible along the Outer Banks of North Carolina beginning early on Friday morning and lasting until at least midday, he said.
Morris forecast Earl will pass within 60 miles of Nantucket, Massachusetts, as a strong Category 1 or Category 2 hurricane overnight Friday. However, sustained hurricane-force winds should not affect coastal Massachusetts as the majority of winds will be tropical-storm force beginning Friday afternoon and lasting until midday on Saturday, he said.
As of 8 p.m. ET, the center of Earl was about 125 miles (235 kilometers) east-northeast of Grand Turk Island and about 835 miles (1,545 kilometers) south-southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, according to the National Hurricane Center. It was heading northwest at about 14 mph (22 kph).
The hurricane's core was "passing well east of the Turks and Caicos Islands," the hurricane center said. "Tropical storm conditions are probably affecting the vicinity of the Turks and Caicos Islands. Weather conditions will likely improve in these islands on Wednesday."
Earl's maximum sustained winds are at 135 mph (215 kph). It is a large storm, with hurricane-force winds stretching 90 miles (150 km) from its center and tropical storm-force winds extending outward some 200 miles (325 kilometers).
"Some fluctuations in intensity are likely, but Earl is forecast to retain Category 4 status for the next day or two," the hurricane center said.
The U.S. Navy in Norfolk, Virginia, has ordered ships in its area to prepare to head to sea within 24 hours if conditions worsen, according to Beth Baker, a spokeswoman for the Navy. A separate order will be given if it's decided that various Naval aircraft in the region need to be moved, she said.
The Navy also issued on Tuesday a "Hurricane Condition 4," which tells people living and working around the Norfolk area to be prepared for "destructive winds" within 72 hours and to take the proper precautions.
A FEMA team is already in North Carolina to provide support if necessary, Craig Fugate, Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator, told reporters on a conference call. Additional teams have been designated for each state on the coast if needed.
He urged those living in the region to prepare for the storm, stock up on supplies and have a plan if it becomes necessary. Besides FEMA's Ready.gov website, people can use FEMA's mobile application, which links to the National Hurricane Center, to stay up to date on information. Tips include developing a family communications plan, putting together a kit with 72 hours of food and water and staying informed of risks in the area.
FEMA officials urged residents to heed any evacuation orders that their state and local governments might make. The federal group stressed it does not make evacuation decisions.
Even without making landfall, hurricanes can trigger dangerous rip currents - a narrow channel of water that flows seaward from beaches. The currents can be strong enough to carry even experienced swimmers into deeper water.
On Tuesday, a National Weather Service coastal advisory was in effect for the eastern coast of Florida, mostly due to Earl's presence in the Caribbean. The advisory warned that dangerous rip currents and rough surf are possible. "Dozens of rescues along with one surf-related fatality were reported over the past few days in very hazardous ocean conditions," the advisory said.
Over the weekend, hundreds of rescues took place in Maryland and elsewhere because of rip currents spawned by then-Hurricane Danielle, which stayed well offshore. Danielle has since lost its tropical characteristics and moved out into the open Atlantic.