US holidaymakers Wednesday began to flee the path of Hurricane Earl, slightly weakened but still packing potentially devastating winds and rains as it sped toward the US east coast.
Weather experts said the category three storm -- which once been as powerful as a category four -- was likely to spin northeast of the Bahamas Wednesday, taking aim at coastal North Carolina, with landfall possible early Friday.
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Craig Fugate warned coastal residents to evacuate, as ordered by state and local governments.
"We continue to monitor Hurricane Earl and remain in close contact with state, territorial and local officials to ensure they have the resources to respond if needed," said Fugate, who was due to brief Wednesday with President Barack Obama about progress of the storm.
"I encourage everyone in the region and along the eastern seaboard to... take steps now to keep their family safe and secure," he said.
At 8:00 am (1200 GMT) Wednesday Earl was located about 780 miles (1225 kilometers) south-southeast of the coastal enclave of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, the NHC said.
The storm had maximum sustained winds of 125 kilometers (205 miles) and was moving toward the northwest. Projections by the Miami-based National Hurricane Center said there was also a good chance Earl could make landfall as far north as New England.
Fugate told US television that when he briefs Obama later Wednesday, "we're going to talk about what we're doing to support the states, but also looking at the fact that we have to have teams ready to go from the Carolinas all the way to Maine," he said.
"We're working to support our state partners in this evacuation and also a response, if required," he told ABC television.
News reports said authorities in Long Island just outside New York City, also were weighing an evacuation order, and Fugate told ABC that numerous towns and cities in the storm's path would have a similar decision to make.
"It's really based upon each community," the top US disaster official said, adding that the key was to issue the orders in a timely enough fashion so that residents trying to flee could actually do so without being overtaken by violent weather.
"Unfortunately, it sometimes means the evacuation may start with blue skies and clear weather, and people don't get that sense of urgency," said Fugate.
He urged people now to begin mapping out what inland destination they will head for if ordered to clear out.
"With all the traffic and all the congestion, people to get to safety," he said. "They need to go when the evacuation orders are issued."
Earl already has pummeled the Bahamas and eastern Caribbean with heavy winds and rain that downed trees, damaged homes, blocked roads and snapped power lines.
Throughout the day on Wednesday, the islands of the Bahamas were due for large swells that "could cause dangerous surf conditions and rip currents," the NHC warned.
The powerful storm brushed past Puerto Rico Tuesday and steamed northwest towards the Bahamas on a path that may hit the eastern US seaboard.
A tropical storm warning was in effect for San Salvador Island in the Central Bahamas.
Earl comes on the heels of Hurricane Danielle, blamed for rough surf and riptides in New York and New Jersey last weekend.
About 174,000 people lost power in Puerto Rico and 33,000 were left without water, while thousands more lost power on the French islands of Saint Martin and Saint Barthelemy.
Meanwhile, tracking closely behind Earl is Tropical Storm Fiona, which was expected to pass over or close to the northern Leeward Islands later Wednesday, at 14 miles (22 kilometers) per hour.
Packing top winds of 45 miles (75 km) per hour, Fiona was located about 200 miles (320 km) east-southeast of the northern Leeward Islands. Tropical storm watches and warnings were issued for several islands.