With Hurricane Earl swirling up the East Coast and expected to lash the Massachusetts coast Friday night with high winds, heavy surf, and torrents of rain, Governor Deval Patrick today declared a state of emergency and asked people in low-lying, flood-prone areas to seek shelter elsewhere.
"This is a serious storm, but it's possible to prepare for it, we have prepared for it, and we're asking the public to prepare for it as well," he said.
"It's obviously concerning that it's Labor Day weekend. ... But public safety is first," he said. "We are doing everything possible to keep people safe."
Forecasters predicted today that Earl will steam past Massachusetts Friday night, just off of Nantucket, whipping up winds and waves on the Cape and Islands and on the southeastern coast of the state up to the Boston area. The storm arrives at the beginning of the Labor Day weekend when many people are typically drawn to the state's coast for an end-of-summer dose of sun and sand.
The National Weather Service issued a hurricane warning for the coast from Westport at the Rhode Island border around Cape Cod to Hull, which is across Boston Harbor from Boston. The warning also covered the popular vacation isles of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket. A hurricane warning means that hurricane conditions -- with winds 74 miles per hour or more -- are expected.
The storm, which was originally predicted to pass farther off the coast, has "ticked a little bit further west and that will have more consequences," said National Weather Service meteorologist Charlie Foley.
Forecasters said late this morning that the center of the storm was expected to pass about 15 miles southeast of Nantucket sometime Friday night or early Saturday morning.
Forecasters also issued tropical storm watches, which alert people to winds from 39 to 73 miles per hour, for the coast north of Hull to Eastport, Maine.
"Nantucket, the Vineyard and probably the eastern half of the Cape will experience hurricane-force winds on the western side of the eyewall," of the storm, with the center of the storm passing "very close" to Nantucket, said Bill Read, director of the National Hurricane Center.
People should also expect tropical storm force winds causing tree damage and power outages, as well as blocking roads, away from the coast, Read said in a telephone news conference this morning.
Read said people who are staying in the area should have supplies for several days and look to local officials for any guidance on evacuations.
Patrick said at the afternoon news conference that people who do not live in low-lying, flood-prone areas should shelter in place -- stay indoors with the windows and doors closed and enough water to last for a day, as well as other supplies.
He said that those who live in flood-prone areas should relocate by Friday afternoon and, if they have no alternative, move to a public shelter. He also asked people to stay off the roads from Friday afternoon through Saturday morning.
Emergency personnel have been deployed to the Cape and Islands, and shelters are being stocked with food and water. Teams of utility workers are traveling to the Cape to remove debris from the storm. NStar, the power company, had brought in extra manpower to respond to expected power outages, Patrick said.
At 2 p.m., the center of Earl was about 720 miles south-southwest of Nantucket. The storm was moving north at 18 mph, with maximum sustained winds of 125 miles per hour.
Foley said the storm, which weakened today to a Category 3 storm, will probably have weakened to a Category 2 by the time it arrives, but it would still pound the coast with winds and heavy surf, creating dangerous rip currents. The storm is also expected to drop several inches of rain, which could cause flooding in low-lying and urban poor drainage areas.
At least in some areas, Foley said, the storm is expected to hit right at low tide, which could reduce the amount of coastal erosion. But there is still uncertainty as to the exact arrival time of the storm -- and tides rise at different times in different places along the coast, he noted.
Outer bands of wind and rain from the storm could begin lashing New England by late Friday morning or early afternoon, with conditions deteriorating dramatically as night approaches, said National Weather Service meteorologist Neal Strauss.
Strauss said the storm would likely mainly affect the Cape and Islands. "Odds are that Boston will be spared from this," he said.
The storm is expected to still have winds of about 100 miles per hour as it passes the Cape, the National Hurricane Center predicted this morning.
State officials today announced plans to close beaches and state parks and warned the public to be cautious because of predicted high seas and dangerous rip currents.
East-facing beaches in Chatham are already closed, said Harbormaster Stuart Smith.
Wendy Fox, a spokeswoman for the Department of Conservation and Recreation, said no state-run beaches have been closed yet, but they definitely will be Friday.
The Coast Guard also warned boaters to take precautions.
Petty Officer Luke Clayton said boaters should double-moor their boats and make sure any loose materials, such as oil cans, are secured. Boaters should also be sure to have emergency equipment like life jackets and flares on hand, he said.
Boaters should monitor their VHF radio's Channel 16, which broadcasts weather updates, advisories, and warnings. “It’s better to be over-prepared than not prepared," he said.
The storm, which would be the first tropical storm of the season and potentially the first hurricane to make landfall here since 1991, has left in suspense everyone from wedding planners to vacationers to boaters, while officials have been making emergency preparations, the Globe reported this morning.
Globe correspondent Jeff Fish and Andrew Ryan and Peter Schworm of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
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