Assateague national park campground evacuated as coast braces for Earl

Neil and Mary Edith Flynn waved goodbye to their son and his family and turned to their sand-colored RV. A high ridge of sea grasses and bayberry bushes blocked the ocean from view in this stretch of the state park, but the sound of hurricane-driven surf smashing onto the shore traveled over the dunes.

"Well, we put everything inside and battened down the hatches," said Mary Edith Flynn, 77. "We're just going to sit here and watch the storm go by."

As Hurricane Earl hurtled up the East Coast, families along this spindly barrier island folded up tents and lugged boogie boards, chairs and dejected children to their vehicles. But a few dozen campers decided to wait out the predicted rain and fierce winds on the portion of the undeveloped island devoted to a state park. All campers from the national park that shares the island were evacuated at noon Thursday.

Along the Maryland and Delaware beaches, vacationers decided whether to tough out heavy winds and rain in rented rooms on the eve of the holiday weekend. Although a hot sun burned in the sky, high waves and strong currents prompted Ocean City officials to ban swimming Thursday. Warnings were posted at Rehoboth Beach in Delaware, and lifeguards roamed the shore at Assateague Island National Park, warning swimmers that the beach would close at 6 p.m.

Even though the storm wasn't expected to hit Baltimore, waterfront areas were warned to watch for strong winds and high water. Hurricane watches extended from North Carolina to Nova Scotia.

Tropical-force winds are expected to whip through the coast early today as Earl approaches. The center of the storm is due to pass more than a hundred miles off the shore this afternoon, and skies are expected to clear later in the day.

Forecasters predicted that the storm would batter North Carolina's Outer Banks overnight with hurricane-force winds, heavy rain and thunderous surf before heading closer to Maryland.

Although the storm's power diminished late Thursday, with top sustained winds down to 110 mph, a Category 2 classification, it remained a large and dangerous hurricane. "It's one of the stronger storms to threaten or even impact the Northeast," said Dennis Feltgen, spokesman for the National Hurricane Center.

Tropical storm warnings were posted for the entire Delmarva coastline, and forecasts predicted gusts as high as 55 mph on Friday.

"We would expect to see enormous tree damage and, as a result there should be significant power outages," Feltgen said.

Even the west side of the Chesapeake "could get clipped," he said.

On Assateague, state rangers rode up a twisting path throughout the day Thursday, warning campers in tents that they should seek shelter and gathering loose branches that could be picked up by winds.

"It's a harsh environment anyway, but with a hurricane, there's a real potential for danger," said park ranger Sarah Rodriguez, who has worked on the island since 2004.

The island's famous wild horses meandered through fields, bending low to nibble grasses or rub their backs on trailer hitches. But the horses appeared to stay away from the beach, where waders who tried to make their way into the surf were knocked off of their feet.

Instinct guides the animals to take shelter in thick brush or wooded areas during a storm, said Rodriguez, explaining that rangers do not make special accommodations for them.

"We try to let nature take its course," she said. The horses "have adapted so well for so many years."

The Marrero family tucked the last cooler into a pickup and prepared for a long ride from Assateague back to their homes in New York and New Jersey. Since Sunday, three generations of the family had slept in tents on a windswept camp site. They had planned to stay through Friday, but Earl cut their trip short.

"It's just one day, thank God," said Danielle Marrero, 33, who has been visiting the island for a decade. "It's been so nice here. The sky is so clear at night you can pick out all the constellations."

Her nephew, Elijah Marrero, 11, and his cousins, David Valencia, 11, and Omyra Saldana, 10, said they were sad to leave and worried about the animals who had lingered around the campsite. They had nicknamed a mare "Marshmallow," after she stole a bag meant for campfire s'mores, and they called her gangly foal "Tito."

Nearby, the Karaszewski family sat in their trailer debating their next move. Should they stay for the spectacle of the storm or head back to their homes in Pennsylvania before winds whipped up?

Four pairs of flip-flops rested in the sand outside the trailer, and a breeze ruffled a line of damp towels.

It had already been a remarkable trip for the family. After soaring above the ocean on a parasail Wednesday, Robert Karaszewski, 31, asked his girlfriend of three years, Rachel Shelly, 28, to marry him. She accepted.

The couple, and his parents, Waldemar and Regina, decided to stick it out, tempted by the promise of sunny skies over the weekend.

Robert Karaszewski, who had been lobbying to stay, dashed off to the grocery store with a broad grin. "This is going to be a vacation she will never forget," he said.

But on the portion of beach managed by the National Park Service, rangers herded campers off the island and warned swimmers that the beach would soon close until Saturday.

Matt and Tess Wiley of Locust Point stretched out on lawn chairs, thick novels resting on a cooler. Ocean City holds special meaning for the couple, who met when both worked as bartenders at Harpoon Hanna's. Now they own a condo on the bay side of the resort town.

"This is the first week we've had off for the entire summer," said Tess Wiley, a nurse at Johns Hopkins Hospital. "If it's not too bad, we might go outlet shopping. Otherwise, we'll just hunker down inside."

Their dog, Hanna, a boxer mix, bounded through the sand chasing a tennis ball. "We've just got to get all the energy out of her before the storm starts," said Matt Wiley.

Thursday dawned sunny and warm on the Eastern Shore, with choppy waves the only indication of the approaching storm.

In Ocean City, crews closed sea gates — fences along the dunes designed to mitigate erosion — throughout the day and were expected to fasten the last in the evening. Workers erected a fence around the large inlet parking lot on the southern tip of the peninsula to rein in blowing sand.

The resort town's emergency operations center is slated to open at 3 a.m. today, about three hours before the first tropical-force winds are due to blow in, said Joseph Theobald, director of the city's emergency management team.

Most businesses are expected to open today, but residents and visitors were urged to stay inside during peak storm conditions.

Officials were optimistic that Earl would speed by, allowing the sun to emerge later this afternoon. "Hopefully, by tomorrow evening we'll be cleaned up and we'll have three good days ahead of us." Abbott said.

Back at the state park office, Rodriguez said that she and other rangers would monitor the storm throughout the day, and could evacuate the last hardy campers if conditions deteriorated.

"Being a barrier island, we definitely get the brunt of the storm," she said. "It's a wild place, and the weather changes it every day. We just hunker down and go with the wind."

Baltimore Sun reporter Frank Roylance contributed to this article.

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