Gov. Dan McKee listens during a tabletop exercise focused on hurricane response at a meeting Thursday with representatives from every agency in state government. (Office of the Governor)
Hurricane Lee is expected to pass offshore of southern New England Saturday, but its impact will extend far with rough surf and coastal flooding, damaging winds and bands of heavy rain expected in Rhode Island and Massachusetts Friday night into Saturday.
As of 11 p.m., when the National Hurricane Center issued an advisory, the storm was located about 170 miles west-southwest of Bermuda and 590 miles south of Nantucket and moving northerly at about 15 mph. Maximum sustained winds of 85 mph were recorded, which makes Lee a Category 1 hurricane. The wind speed range for Category 1 hurricanes is 74-95 mph.
The National Hurricane Center issued a Tropical Storm Warning for Westport, Massachusetts, northward to the U.S.-Canada border at 11 p.m. A Tropical Storm Watch was canceled for Block Island, and Washington, Newport and Bristol counties. A tropical storm by definition has maximum sustained winds of 39 to 73 mph.
“The reason we don’t have a warning out yet is there’s still a bit of uncertainty in the track,” Rob Megnia, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Norton Massachusetts, had said early Thursday afternoon. “If it starts to shift a little big westward over the next 12 hours, we might upgrade that to a warning.”
A watch, Megnia said, generally means meteorologists are “50% confident that tropical storm-force winds will take place.” A warning would be issued at the point of “80% confidence,” he said, “like we’re pretty sure it’s going to happen.”
A Tropical Storm Warning remains in effect for Bermuda, Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket as well as New Brunswick from the U.S.-Canada border to Fort Lawrence, including Grand Manan Island, and Nova Scotia from Fort Lawrence to Point Tupper.
A Hurricane Watch extends from Stonington, Maine, to Point Lepreau, New Brunswick, including Grand Manan Island and Nova Scotia from Digby to Medway Harbour.
The Rhode Island forecast called for 20-30 mph sustained winds out of the north on Saturday with gusts as high as 30-40 mph.
“So nothing too crazy but given the recent excessive rainfall we’ve had over the last week or so, we’ve seen some situations with some storms yesterday where trees are becoming very vulnerable,” Megnia said. “They’re being uprooted much easier with some gusty winds. it could potentially create some power outage problems.”
Utility workers on standby
Rhode Island Energy released a statement Thursday saying it is likely hundreds of workers from out of state would be needed to help the utility company’s 1,300 workers with power restoration efforts after the storm passes. The utility company had put hundred of personnel on standby.
“Most of the trees across the state haven’t lost any leaves yet, and with the ground already saturated from significant rainfall this summer, these tropical force winds could create outages,” Rhode Island Energy President Dave Bonenberger said in a statement.
Gov. Dan McKee met virtually with municipal leaders Thursday morning to review storm preparations and spoke by phone early afternoon with Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell, “who offered her team’s assistance ahead of Lee.”
Just got off the phone with @fema Administrator @FEMA_Deanne who offered her team’s assistance ahead of #Lee. I also briefed her on RI’s response to extreme weather this week and our preparation efforts.
Thank you, Administrator Criswell for your support and partnership. pic.twitter.com/OsRiFceBwt
— Governor Dan McKee (@GovDanMcKee) September 14, 2023
Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency conducted a three-hour tabletop session with the governor, cabinet members, and department agencies, which McKee said is done annual as the state heads into hurricane season.
It’s particularly helpful for some of the state’s newer department agencies, the governor said in an interview Thursday afternoon.
“When they see the ability to be prepared, it gives them the confidence and direction you would get in an emergency,” McKee said.
McKee did not divulge the details of the practice other than it was for a generic hurricane.
“We did not go through Hurricane Lee today,” the governor said. “I think we’re going to be spared on most of the impact of that. We’re still on notice and tomorrow morning we’ll make calls on that.”
The governor will host a press briefing at the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency in Cranston Friday at 11 a.m. to discuss the state’s Hurricane Lee preparation efforts and the latest weather projections.
Even with the optimistic forecast, McKee urged Rhode Islanders to stay safe in case things turn the other way.
“You need to be prepared,” he said, reminding residents to charge their phones and flashlights overnight. “People need to take this stuff seriously, and we take it seriously.”
Rhode Island National Guard spokesperson Maj. Jarred Rickey said via email Thursday that army and air staff are preparing units to respond to emergencies if and when the governor requests.
“The priority for us is our Engineer Company and other units with high water mark vehicles,” he said. “Our unit and state level maintenance facilities are prioritizing the preventative maintenance checks and inspections on those larger vehicles.”
Army and air units are also planning for the movement of the aircraft out of Quonset, Rickey said, in order to safeguard the aircraft if the storm track changes to a more westerly track, though that call will be made Friday.
Rhode Island Airport Corporation (RIAC) CEO Iftikar Ahmad said airport officials are in communication with airlines on how to proceed if a major storm hits. He said during RIAC’s monthly Board of Directors meeting Thursday that protocol is for companies to halt flights when wind speeds are more than 40 mph.
“The airport is open, but the service may not be there,” Ahmad said.
The Block Island Ferry adjusted its traditional schedule for Friday to accommodate additional trips earlier in the day because service interruptions are possible late Friday afternoon and evening, according to a post on the ferry service website. Service interruptions are expected Friday afternoon and Saturday on the high-speed ferry schedule out of Point Judith.
The Jamestown Ferry is operating Thursday but canceled its service Friday through Sunday.
The Newport International Boat Show opened Thursday and will continue through Sunday though an in-water power boat training course that was to take place is canceled.
The Newport harbormaster’s office has stopped taking reservations for the weekend on city-owned commercial moorings, which has likely impacted attendance by those who travel to the boat show by boat.
Tom Shevlin, communications officer for the city of Newport, said the harbormaster’s office has made contact with the owners or operators of over 600 out-of-town boats over the last 48 hours to ask them to return to their homeports.
“We have reduced the number of vessels in the harbor by over 30% since Monday,” Shevlin said.
“At this point, safety is really everyone’s main priority.”
This story has been updated with the 11 p.m. National Hurricane Center advisory and an interview with Gov. Dan McKee.
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