Ocean City braces for Hurricane Earl

Resort businesses hope storm doesn't cause large-scale holiday cancellations

August 31, 2010|By Frank D. Roylance and Lorraine Mirabella, The Baltimore Sun

With Hurricane Earl continuing its push toward the East Coast, hotels and other businesses in Ocean City were bracing for some cancellations over the big Labor Day weekend.

The Labor Day weekend has become more weather-dependent in recent years because the school year starts earlier in many localities, said Susan Jones, executive director of the Ocean City Hotel Motel Restaurant Association. Business slows by the end of August, and many businesses count on not only the existing bookings but also the last-minute visits that have become more common.

Despite the still-unpredictable course of Earl, she noted that forecasts look good for Saturday and Sunday. "We just have to get through Thursday night and Friday. Typically, with any hurricane, it's absolutely gorgeous after a bad rainstorm."

Meanwhile, two cruise ships out of the port of Baltimore were adjusting itineraries and port calls in the Caribbean.

The Carnival Pride, on a seven-day cruise, is skipping a port call at Grand Turk Island. Instead, the Pride will stop Wednesday at Port Canaveral, then spend two days in the Bahamas at Freeport and Nassau.

Royal Caribbean's Enchantment of the Seas, on a nine-night cruise, skipped a stop at St. Thomas on Monday. Instead, the cruise made calls at Samana, Dominican Republic, and Labadee, Haiti. The ship will spend the next three days at sea, returning to Baltimore on Saturday.

The National Hurricane Center said late this morning that Earl continued to move away from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Heavy rains, battering waves and tropical-storm-force winds were all forecast to diminish Tuesday in the U.S. possessions as the storm continued to depart.

Those same hazards were expected to increase farther west in the Turks & Caicos Islands, where a tropical storm warning was posted. A tropical storm watch was issued for the eastern Bahamas.

The latest forecast calls for cloudy, breezy and showery weather Friday in Ocean City, as Earl passed off the Delmarva coast by 8 a.m. Unless the forecast changes in the coming days, the hurricane is expected to pass well off the resort's beaches. The rest of the weekend looks fine, with sunny skies and highs near 80 degrees.

A quarter of a million people were expected in Ocean City for Labor Day weekend. 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.

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.

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