Mass evacuations may be required if Hurricane Earl tracks too close to the East Coast, federal officials said Tuesday, as the powerful Category 4 storm barreled toward the U.S., sparking a hurricane watch for most of the North Carolina coast.
Earl, with winds of 135 mph, was expected to remain over the open ocean before turning north and running parallel to the U.S. coast, potentially reaching the North Carolina coastal region by late Thursday or early Friday. It was projected then to curve back out to sea, perhaps swiping New England or far-eastern Canada.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced that it is sending staff up and down the East Coast to help prepare communities potentially affected by the hurricane.
The agency said that it has supplies strategically located across the country, including water, meals, tarps, blankets, generators and other essential items. It also said that people along the eastern seaboard should be prepared in case evacuations are necessary later this week.
"We're taking steps to aggressively prepare should a hurricane make landfall along the East Coast," FEMA Director Craig Fugate said in a statement distributed by the agency.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center is warning coastal residents to watch the storm closely.
"Any small shift in the track could dramatically alter whether it makes landfall or whether it remains over the open ocean," said Wallace Hogsett, a meteorologist at the center. "I can't urge enough to just stay tuned."
Earl delivered a glancing blow to several small Caribbean islands on Monday, tearing roofs off of homes and cutting electricity to people in Anguilla, Antigua, and St. Maarten. Cruise ships were diverted and flights canceled across the region. But there were no reports of death or injury.
In Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos, a British territory, Benson Capron was among several fishermen tying their boats to trees lining a beach.
"I hear it is going to pass, but I will not take any chances," Capron said. "Today I will not go out to fish."
Forecasters said it was too early to say what effect Earl would have in the U.S., but warned it could at least kick up dangerous rip currents. A surfer died in Florida and a Maryland swimmer had been missing since Saturday in waves spawned by former Hurricane Danielle, which weakened to a tropical storm Monday far out in the north Atlantic.
Fugate said evacuations may be necessary along the eastern seaboard later this week if the storm does not veer away from the coast as expected.
"Today is the day to make sure you have your plan completed and your supplies in place," he said.
The storm's center passed just north of the British Virgin Islands on Monday afternoon. Despite a few lost fishing boats and several uprooted trees in Tortola and Anegada, there were no reports of major damage or injuries, said Sharleen DaBreo, disaster management agency director.
By midday Tuesday, Earl's center was about 205 miles east of Grand Turk island as it headed west-northwest at 14 mph, according to the hurricane center. Hurricane strength winds extended up to 70 miles from the center, it said.
Tropical storm conditions were expected to spread into the Turks and Caicos by Tuesday afternoon.
Close on Earl's heels, Tropical Storm Fiona formed Monday afternoon in the open Atlantic. The storm, with maximum winds of 40 mph, was projected to pass just north of the Leeward Islands by Wednesday and stay farther out in the Atlantic than Earl's northward path. Fiona was not expected to reach hurricane strength over the next several days.
Residents were cleaning up debris and assessing damage Tuesday on islands across the northeastern Caribbean.
In Puerto Rico, nearly 187,000 people were without power and another 60,000 without water, Gov. Luis Fortuno said. More than a dozen roads along the north coast remained closed as crews removed trees and downed power lines.
In St. Maarten, sand and debris littered the streets, and winds knocked down trees and electricity poles and damaged roofs. But police spokesman Ricardo Henson said there was no extensive damage to property.
In Antigua, at least one home was destroyed but there were no reports of serious injuries. Governor General Dame Louise Agnetha Lake-Tack declared Monday a public holiday to keep islanders off the road and give them a chance to clean up.
The Associated Press contributed to this report