Hurricane Earl barrels toward close encounter with Vineyard

Edgartown fire chief and emergency services director Peter Shemeth briefed town officials Tuesday. — Photo by Steve Myrick

As Hurricane Earl accelerated toward New England at 5 pm Wednesday, the National Hurricane Center issued a hurricane watch for Martha’s Vineyard.

The potent storm is predicted to pass approximately 100 to 125 miles southeast of the Island. Heavy rains are forecast to begin late tonight.

On Friday, tropical storm force winds (39 miles per hour to 73 miles per hour) “are almost a certainty,” according to the National Hurricane Center.

The latest information on the storm track is available at

Across Martha’s Vineyard Wednesday, emergency management directors coordinated disaster response preparations and kept a close watch on the forecast.

The storm showed some fluctuation in strength Wednesday afternoon, with sustained winds at 135 miles per hour, extending out 90 miles from the eye of the storm. Forecasters expect Earl to weaken slightly when it reaches cooler waters near New England on Friday, but it will remain a very powerful hurricane, and likely expand in size, according to the National Hurricane Center.

On the Vineyard, winds will begin from the east-northeast, quickly back to the north, and eventually back all the way to the west-northwest as the fast moving storm skirts the New England coast.

Experts say a storm surge, the rising water pushed ahead by a hurricane, is often more dangerous than high winds. The current forecast predicts a 20 to 30 percent chance of a storm surge higher than two feet.

National Hurricane Center director Bill Read said he had high confidence in the predicted storm track, but cautioned if the forecast turn to the northwest is delayed for six hours or more, it would bring the storm much closer to New England, and cause significantly more damage.

Alarm and complacency

While trying to strike a balance between alarm and complacency, public officials were well along their check list of preparations Wednesday. Emergency management directors for each town were scheduled to meet at noon today to get the latest guidance from weather forecasters and the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA). “If the storm is moving east, we’re going to back down,” Oak Bluffs emergency management director Peter Martell said. “If it moves west, we’re going to crank up.” The Times web site at is continuously updated with the latest information about emergency notifications, shelter information, and announcements from public safety officials. Disaster planning and supply check lists are also available.

If emergency shelters are needed, authorities in Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, Tisbury, and West Tisbury will open the elementary schools in those towns. In Chilmark, the community center is the shelter site. In Aquinnah people will be housed at the old town hall near the town office complex.

Only Oak Bluffs and Aquinnah have facilities to accept cats and dogs. Pets must be in crates.

The Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School is not a designated shelter. The high school would only be used if one of the designated shelters could not be opened or was forced to close.

“Code Red” test

A reverse 9-1-1 call, the first test of the new “Code Red” early warning system went out to 21,000 Island phones late Tuesday afternoon. Other messages are planned if needed. The Tuesday phone message asked people to watch weather forecasts closely, and take sensible precautions. The precautions include stocking up on water, food, batteries, candles and necessary medications. Experts also advise families to work out a disaster plan, with a way to account for everyone, a planned destination, and a way to get there if evacuations are necessary.

A general evacuation of the Island is not part of any disaster plan. It would be impossible in practical terms, according to emergency planners. But if severe flooding is expected, emergency officials have plans in place to get people out of low-lying areas such as Katama, in Edgartown, Beach Road in Tisbury, and Beach Road, Farm Pond, and Circuit Avenue Extension in Oak Bluffs.

Island towns stockpiled sandbags to protect buildings in lowlying areas, if necessary. MEMA has already moved supplies of food, water, and tarps into staging areas. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has also staged supplies in New England in advance of the storm. NSTAR has 12 additional line workers and eight trucks ready to move to the Island.

A juggling act

Edgartown emergency management director Peter Shemeth said the decision to evacuate is a juggling act, based on how fast the storm is moving, when and where it strikes, and the timing of the tides.

“We can’t just evacuate people and have no place to put them,” Mr. Shemeth said. “We’ve got to make sure the shelters are open and still leave ourselves enough time to get the people safely to the shelters.”

High tide for Friday evening at Edgartown is 8:04 pm, which is a few hours before Earl is forecast to pass closest to Martha’s Vineyard. High tide in Aquinnah is about four hours earlier, at 3:59 pm.

Public safety officials urge people to stay off the roads during the storm. “It’s essential,” Mr. Martell said. He said sightseers not only endanger themselves, but hamper efforts to restore services. “Hurricane Bob was a prime example of it,” Mr. Martell said. “There were cars everywhere. All they did was get in the way. You couldn’t get electric trucks through to restore the power.”

Edgartown Police chief Tony Bettencourt said he anticipates problems at South Beach no matter what track the storm takes. He urged sightseers and storm watchers to resist the urge to travel to the shoreline, for their own safety, and to leave roads clear for emergency personnel. If necessary, he will close roads leading to town beaches.

Peter Wells, owner of the Chappaquiddick ferry, warned Chappy residents to decide early whether they will leave their homes during the storm. “They need to leave plenty of time to get out,” Mr. Wells said. “High wind is going to be a problem and high water is going to be a problem. We’re going to stop in plenty of time because we have to get the boats secured somewhere, and get out of there ourselves. We’re not going to be running at the very last second.”

Prudent mariners

Edgartown Marine (web cam) and the Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard have been hauling boats during daylight hours since Monday.

Edgartown harbormaster Charlie Blair said Tuesday he has suspended mooring and slip reservations for the Labor Day weekend, and canceled an expected yacht club cruise that included 50 boats. “We’ve got to look at it from the doom and gloom side until it’s otherwise,” Mr. Blair said. “I have people that didn’t even know Earl existed. I’ve been chasing them out of here all day. ‘Go home, get out of Edgartown.’ You’d be surprised the people we talked to on boats that had no clue.”

Vineyard Haven harbormaster Jay Wilbur urged boaters to remove sails and anything else that might increase windage, well before the storm arrives. He also asked that people clear dinghies off the town dock, noting that the dinghey docks came close to breaking loose during last week’s northeast storm.

Sail MV program director Brock Callen said he was taking no chances. By this morning, he planned to have all of the community sailing organization’s 80 small boats out of the water and safely stored.

Oak Bluffs wastewater plant manager Joe Alosso advised homeowners between Waban Park, and Ocean Park, all who live in the Martha’s Vineyard Campmeeting Association campgrounds, and all businesses in the downtown business district to restrict water use if power is out.

“It is important that you either use no water oras little as possible that will end up going into the sewer during that time,” Mr. Alosso said in a statement. “Once power is restored you will be able to utilize the system as you normally would.”