A diminished tropical storm Earl whirled off the Massachusetts coast early this morning, raking Cape Cod and the Islands with pelting rain, strong gusts, and pounding surf, but packing less force than feared.
The storm, which had been an unusually strong hurricane, weakened as it moved north and late last night was downgraded to a tropical storm after its sustained gusts slowed to 70 miles per hour.
But the massive cyclone, which passed 90 miles southeast of Nantucket, retained enough power to churn up dangerous swells that threatened to destroy a number of homes on the western part of the island. As midnight neared, Earl's squalls lashed the exposed island, 30 miles off Cape Cod, and sent debris flying. Fifteen-foot waves pounded the shore, and a half-dozen streets were closed because of flooding, but overall, island officials said late last night, Nantucket fared much better than expected.
On Martha's Vineyard, where officials had urged businesses to close and motorists to stay off the roads, the winds seemed to grow stronger by the minute as the eye of the storm passed by, whipping the rain so hard the drops fell like needles. In Oak Bluffs, the storm surge had flooded a street overlooking the harbor.
On Cape Cod, as the storm made its closest pass by shore, a deafening wind and pelting rain roared across Chatham's Lighthouse Beach, rocking a white flagpole back and forth and snapping a red no-swimming flag straight. Large raindrops filtered through the lighthouse beam across the sky, and whitecaps rolled atop the sea.
In Hyannis, the scene was far more serene. The streets were empty as a steady rain fell, and a fireboat held steady in the flat harbor.
"Normally on a Friday night, labor day weekend, there would be crowds out,'' said emergency medical services supervisor Mike Medeiros. "it's eerily quiet.''
Off-Cape, the storm was decidedly less dramatic. In South Boston, Carson Beach was largely deserted late last night, except for three young women who decided to go swimming under a light but steady rain.
"You get a hurricane like every 20 years," said Amy McCarthy 23, of Dorchester. "so why not check it out?"
Her friend, Rebekah Lehtonen, 23, of Connecticut, was unimpressed.
"I wish it was a little bit more windy," Lehtonen said.
The ill-timed storm wreaked havoc with the start of the Labor Day weekend, causing vacationers to cancel travel plans and some waterfront homeowners to retreat inland. Others stayed put, choosing to ride out the storm with sandbags and supplies.
Forecasters said heavy, windy rain overnight would give way today to sunny conditions that would last through the holiday weekend.
"It's moving on,'' said meteorologist Alan Dunham of the National Weather Service just after midnight, as Earl left the area.
The full extent of storm damage was unclear. Scott MacLeod, a spokesman for the state's emergency management agency, said that widespread but sporadic downed tree limbs had closed road across southeastern Massachusetts, the outer Cape, and Nantucket, but that no major damage had been reported by midnight.
Emergency response teams positioned on the outer Cape and Nantucket planned to fan out at daybreak, looking for fallen trees, downed power lines, and other damage.
"We will see some significant impacts from the high winds, especially with leaves on trees," MacLeod said. "The storm should be cleared out by breakfast."
Earl, at one point the strongest hurricane to threaten the region in two decades, by midweek had swelled to a fierce storm almost as large as New England itself. But as it churned north over colder water yesterday, Earl steadily diminished in strength, and by the time it neared Massachusetts it had lost much of its force.
Maximum sustained winds, which had topped 145 miles per hour, slowed to around 70 miles per hour by 11 p.m., and the storm was downgraded from a Category 4 hurricane to a tropical storm as it arrived. Once projected to pass as close as 15 miles southeast of Nantucket, the storm veered eastward yesterday, considerably diminishing its threat.
In advance of the storm, officials all along the Eastern seaboard had braced for the worst, warning that storms can quickly change course. President Obama declared a state of emergency in Massachusetts, authorizing federal support, and state officials readied shelters and repair crews. Utilities braced for widespread power outages, deploying some 1,000 crew members to repair downed power lines, and the Coast Guard closed ports in Southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Ferry service and airline flights to the islands were canceled yesterday. Nantucket authorities called on residents in low-lying, vulnerable areas to move to higher ground. On Cape Cod, many beaches were closed. And throughout the region, towns opened emergency shelters, just in case.
‘‘I’d rather be too prepared than not prepared enough,’’ said Jeannie Pierson, 41, as she helped set up a shelter at an elementary school in Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard. Joan and Robert Celusak were the first to arrive there, in the early afternoon. After weathering Hurricane Bob two decades ago, they decided the gym was safer than their Beach Avenue home.
‘‘We just didn’t want to be there when the house collapsed, you know,’’ Joan Celusak said. ‘‘The way they were talking at the beginning it was like all hell was breaking loose.’’
But as it became clear that the storm would be more like a nor'easter than a hurricane, many people ignored warnings and flocked to beaches to watch Earl arrive.
At a beach in Oak Bluffs, as the wind picked up and waves swelled yesterday evening, Jane and Steve Edmonds of Sharon sipped shiraz, their backs to the churning sea.
Suddenly, a wave sprayed Jane Edmonds, causing her to shriek.
‘‘I’m not moving! I’m not moving!’’ she said defiantly, covering her glass with her hand.
Near the water, Irene Sherman and her husband, Marc Littlejohn, stood with their children, Maya, 13 and Zach, 10. Marc Littlejohn had heard the warnings that people shouldn’t watch the storm from the beach, but the prospect of seeing it up close was too enticing.
‘‘We couldn’t help ourselves,’’ Littlejohn said. ‘‘It’s pretty amazing.’’
Still, the family agreed, they were happy the storm was not as intense as what was forecast.
‘‘We don’t want a natural disaster,’’ Maya said.
At Falmouth Heights Beach, Gary and Carol Phillips of Arlington said Earl wasn’t about to keep them from the Cape.
‘‘This is New England,’’ said Gary Phillips, 54. ‘‘Weather is changeable.’’
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