Gulf Coast residents cleared out Wednesday as unpredictable Tropical Storm Earl grew into a hurricane and veered eastward, growing from a distant threat to a sudden danger.
Schools were closed in the Florida Panhandle where wind and rain picked up during the morning. Hurricane warnings were posted from Pascagoula, Miss., to Florida's Big Bend, about 100 miles north of Tampa. One day earlier, the storm had seemed to be threatening Texas and Louisiana."It's like a plate of spaghetti here, trying to pick the center of it," Jerry Jarrell, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said Wednesday.
Earl's maximum sustained wind speed jumped from 60 mph to 80 mph east of the center Wednesday morning; the minimum strength for a hurricane is 74 mph.
A tropical storm watch was issued Wednesday morning along the Florida Gulf Coast south to Tampa, and forecasters warned they had "considerable uncertainty" about Earl's destination. Watches and warning west of Mississippi were lifted.
Schools in Alabama's coastal counties were closed Wednesday, boat owners had started moving their craft to safe harbors and people rushed to stock up on supplies. Residents of Louisiana's coastal communities had started evacuating Tuesday when they seemed to be in the storm's path.
The storm surge near the center could be 5 to 7 feet above normal.
Stephen Jenkins, working as a janitor at a waterfront restaurant in Panama City, said Tuesday he plans to be "nowhere near this place" when Earl comes ashore.