Hurricane Earl hits North Carolina

Strongest Atlantic storm of 2010 expected to send waters surging up to 1.5 metres and dump up to 15 centimetres of rain.

KITTY HAWK // Hurricane Earl bore down on North Carolina early today, promising to lash a vast stretch of the US east coast with tropical storm force winds, heavy rain and dangerous surf. Coastal residents huddled at home after tens of thousands fled the strongest Atlantic storm of 2010, which was expected to produce major swells along much of the eastern seaboard during the day, send waters surging up to 1.5 metres and dump up to 15 centimetres of rain.

Although Earl was earlier downgraded to a category two storm, it was expected to bring destructive winds and heavy rains to North Carolina's coast before moving north, reaching Nova Scotia in Canada by early tomorrow. Weather-watchers said Earl was the most powerful hurricane to threaten the US north-east and New England since 1991, when Hurricane Bob caused deadly damage. For vacationers, the forecast track upended plans for a final few days at the beach before the end of summer for the Labor Day holiday weekend that draws millions to East Coast beaches.

At 2am (6am GMT), the US National Hurricane Center, or NHC, said the storm's sustained winds had dipped to near 170km per hour, but warned it was still a major hurricane expected to pass near North Carolina's Outer Banks, skimming Massachusetts by the evening. The huge storm several hundred miles across was heading north at around 18 miles per hour. It was located about 85 miles east-southeast of Cape Hatteras in the Outer Banks, a narrow band of North Carolina barrier islands.

With the centre predicting hurricane strength winds as far as 70 miles from the eye of the storm, coastal North Carolina residents were battening down and tourists were scattering inland. Craig Fugate, chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, said: "People need to be rapidly completing their preparedness in the Carolina's Outer Banks, and for other folks along the east coast they really need to focus today on what they are going to do when the storm gets there."

FEMA said 400,000 litres of drinking water and 300,000 meals were being allocated to a support center at a North Carolina military base in preparation for the storm. While some storm-hardened residents were ignoring evacuation orders, one hardware store manager, Chris Davidson, said he planned to drive with his wife and two children about 100 miles inland, where his mother lives.

"It seems like more people are taking it more seriously than in the past," Mr Davidson said. A hurricane warning was extended across coastal Massachusetts, including the popular retreat areas of Cape Cod, Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, while the Canadian Hurricane Centre issued a hurricane watch for parts of Nova Scotia. Tropical storm warnings were issued for points all along the US east coast, as President Barack Obama signed disaster declarations for North Carolina and Massachusetts, ordering federal assistance for response efforts.