Ocean City braces for Hurricane Earl

Storm heads for East Coast

August 30, 2010|By Frank D. Roylance, The Baltimore Sun

With a quarter of a million people expected in Ocean City for Labor Day weekend, public safety officials are keeping a close watch on Hurricane Earl as the powerful Atlantic storm turns for a run up the East Coast late this week.

The National Hurricane Center's latest forecast storm track puts Earl off Delmarva by 2 p.m. Friday, with peak winds at its center expected to diminish by then to less than 111 mph.

After a weekend that saw one fatality and nearly 500 rescues from waves stirred up by a far more distant storm, everyone hopes the new storm will track well east of the beaches.

"We're monitoring the forecasts because we know it can change suddenly. Hurricanes have a mind of their own," said Donna Abbott, spokeswoman for the Town of Ocean City. "But we're not really pushing any panic buttons at this point. We're a coastal community, and we've been through these situations before."

Earl spent much of Monday pounding the U.S. Virgin Islands and other islands in the Northern Leewards. Top sustained winds were estimated at 135 mph, making Earl a dangerous Category 4 hurricane. Conditions were favorable for further strengthening, but the storm is expected to be less than a Category 3 by Friday.

The storm's center late Monday was passing north of Puerto Rico. Most forecast models predicted it would make a gradual turn to the northwest in the next few days, bringing it closer to the Outer Banks before weather systems turn it to the north and finally to the northeast, away from a direct landfall.

The National Weather Service's forecast office at Sterling, Va., said Monday that even though Earl's forecast track up the coast had been inching westward Monday — closer to the beaches — the computer models also confined its most severe effects to a narrow ocean corridor.

"Little precipitation [is] expected from this feature, either, mainly for the windward side of the Central Appalachians," the forecasters said. "All of this activity will quickly rotate off toward the northeast into the weekend."

Even so, the Maryland Emergency Management Agency began daily conference calls Monday with the National Weather Service and local emergency managers.

"Everyone realizes this is quite a few days out, but clearly no matter what happens with this thing, there will be issues to deal with at the coastal resorts," said MEMA spokesman Ed McDonough.

"The big issue, of course, will be what decisions Ocean City decides to make with regard to vacationers down there, and whether it would be prudent to have them head home," he said.

The resort is still a long way from that sort of decision, Abbott said.

"In the 30 years I've lived down here, we've only had to evacuate once," she said. That was in late September 1985, when powerful Hurricane Gloria made a run up the coast less than 50 miles off the resort's beaches.

With top winds of 120 mph, Gloria could have been a killer. But the storm passed by at a brisk 30 mph, subjecting Ocean City to heavy winds for a relatively brief period. Favorable wind directions and the arrival of a cold front also helped to minimize the damage.

Even so, storm waves tore up large sections of the boardwalk, caused two fires and flooded the resort's streets. More than 52,000 people were evacuated.

Across the region, the bad weather closed schools, downed trees, cut electrical power and drenched the region with heavy rain. Baltimore recorded more than 6 inches of rain from the storm, some of which was welcomed after a dry summer.

No one is predicting such consequences yet from Earl. Many hurricanes moving up the coast in the past — such as Gladys and Dora in 1964, and Doria in 1967 — have left little more than minor coastal flooding and blustery winds in their wakes.

Periodic beach replenishment and the construction of oceanfront dunes since the 1990s have also reduced Ocean City's risk from tropical storms and nor'easters.

"We have had no significant damage since beach replenishment," Abbott said. "It's saved us millions of dollars in potential damages, and no lives have been lost from storm activity." Plans this year to pump more sand onto the beaches to patch eroded areas were postponed until after the summer season.

But even with a relatively benign track, well off shore, Earl could pose dangerous risks for swimmers.

Surf conditions were better on Monday, although a shore break still threatened to knock down swimmers and jam body surfers into the sand in shallow water, the Ocean City Beach Patrol said.

Over the weekend, lifeguards made 477 rescues over two days. Big waves and strong shore currents stirred up by Hurricane Danielle — more than 1,000 miles at sea —created powerful rip currents as big waves drained off the sand.

One swimmer, identified as Melkis DelGado, 23, of Washington, was missing and presumed drowned after he went swimming with friends late Saturday — after 5:30 p.m., when lifeguards leave their posts for the day.

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