Earl Weakens But Still Powerful As It Smacks NC

BUXTON, N.C. -- The last ferry left for the mainland and coastal residents hunkered down at home as Hurricane Earl closed in with 105 mph winds Thursday on North Carolina's dangerously exposed Outer Banks, the first and perhaps most destructive stop on the storm's projected journey up the Eastern Seaboard. The hurricane's squalls began to lash the long ribbon of barrier islands Thursday night. Gusts above 40 mph made signs shake and the heavy rain fall sideways in Buxton, the southeasternmost tip of the Outer Banks. Hurricane Earl's winds were slowing, from 140 mph early Thursday to 105 mph, Category 2 strength, by late Thursday. But forecasters warned that it remained powerful, with hurricane-force winds of 74 mph or more extending 70 miles from its center and tropical storm-force winds of at least 35 mph reaching more than 200 miles out. "It's interesting to me to just see what Mother Nature can do," said Jay Lopez, 36, of Frisco, as the wind howled through Buxton. Federal, state and local authorities were waiting for daybreak to begin patrolling the coast to check for damage. The Coast Guard planned an airplane flyover of the Outer Banks and were prepared for search-and-rescue helicopter flights. State transportation officials were waiting to check Highway 12, which connects the Outer Banks with the mainland, for washouts and downed trees. National Weather Service meteorologist Hal Austin said the eye of the hurricane was expected to get as close as 55 miles east of the Outer Banks about 2 a.m. Friday. The coast is expected to be lashed by hurricane-force winds for a couple of hours with a storm surge of up to 5 feet and waves 18 feet high. Earl's arrival could mark the start of at least 24 hours of stormy, windy weather along the East Coast. During its march up the Atlantic, it could snarl travelers' Labor Day weekend plans and strike a second forceful blow to the vacation homes and cottages on Long Island, Nantucket Island and Cape Cod.