Just over a year ago, a 7-year-old girl died and several people were injured when a huge wave generated by Hurricane Bill swept them off the rocks and into the ocean at Acadia National Park.

With that tragedy fresh in their minds and Hurricane Earl expected to pass offshore, emergency management officials in Maine are urging the public to use caution over the next couple of days.

The waves are projected to be highest — 12 feet or more — from the state’s midcoast to the Down East region late Friday and into Saturday. Those projections could become less or more severe depending on the track of the storm.

“It is a real concern with us,” said Rob McAleer, director of the Maine Emergency Management Agency.

“We all learned from last year,” he said, referring to the death of Clio Axilrod at Acadia National Park. “The problem is, we have a new group of tourists who may not have learned those same lessons.”

Gov. John Baldacci recently emphasized the need to warn the public about the dangers of wave-watching, McAleer said. That has been passed down from his office to the counties’ emergency management directors and local law enforcement officers.

Signs will be posted at beaches and parks as the storm nears. While officials cannot keep all sightseers away from potentially dangerous spots, McAleer said it’s important to send the message that the waves that are expected this weekend are far more unpredictable and powerful than normal.

McAleer and other leaders of the Maine Emergency Management Agency participated in a conference call Wednesday that included the National Weather Service, Acadia National Park officials, several state agencies, utilities and telecommunications companies.

“Even if the storm stays offshore, we can expect big waves and rip currents,” McAleer said. “We’re talking 10- to 15-feet waves at Acadia again.”

Officials at the park are preparing to keep people away from the rocks along Ocean Drive from Sand Beach to Otter Point on Friday. That scenic stretch includes Thunder Hole, a narrow inlet where crashing waves boom like thunder.

Warning signs will be posted, rangers will patrol the area and, most likely, the viewing platform at Thunder Hole will be closed, said John Kelly, spokesman for Acadia National Park.

Some park roads may be closed if ocean debris washes onto them. Visitors to the park should call 288-8804 for updates this weekend.

Hurricane Bill was well off Maine’s coast when it passed last August, but the strong, slow-moving storm pushed huge swells toward the coast.

On the morning of Sunday, Aug. 23, dozens of sightseers gathered to take pictures and watch the surf at Thunder Hole at Acadia. Park rangers closed the viewing area on the rocky ledge because of the approaching high tide, but many people remained in the area.

“After several hours of sustained swells of 12-15 feet, a much larger wave hit the coast at 12 p.m. and struck a group of approximately 20 people,” park officials said in a press release last year.

Of the seven people who were swept into the water, four climbed back onto the rocks and three were carried out to sea. The Coast Guard rescued Peter Axilrod, 55, of New York City and Simone Pelletier, 12, of Belfast. They also recovered Axilrod’s daughter, 7-year-old Clio, but she did not survive.

Hurricane Earl will most likely remain a few hundred miles off the Maine coast as it passes north toward Nova Scotia, said Tom Hawley, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Gray.

In that scenario, Hawley said, wave heights on Friday night and Saturday morning would top out around 7 feet off Maine’s southwest coast, with 12-foot or higher waves from the midcoast east to the Canadian border.

“We are going to have seas, probably some rain, some tropical storm gusts out over the water,” Hawley said. “If the storm is 100 miles closer, of course, all of that goes out the window. We’re all basing this on a certain predetermined track.”

As for the heat wave that has gripped Maine this week, temperatures and humidity are expected to remain well above normal today, with highs in the Portland area around 90 degrees. That should ease a bit on Friday, with highs in the 80s, Hawley said.

After the storm passes, Hawley said, the forecast calls for clear, cooler weather next week.

The heat on Wednesday was so intense that it forced early dismissal at some schools in the midcoast.

The superintendent of Regional School Unit 13, serving Cushing, Owls Head, Rockland, South Thomaston, St. George and Thomaston, decided to dismiss students at midday. Students were also dismissed early in the Five Town CSD, SAD 28 and School Union 69, serving Camden, Rockport, Hope, Appleton and Lincolnville.

Judith Lucarelli, superintendent of RSU 13, said students were nearing the point of exhaustion Wednesday morning when she decided to send them home. The cinderblock school buildings retain heat, and only three of the unit’s 200 or so classrooms have air conditioning.

Lucarelli said the schools will likely hold classes today but she will keep in close contact with principals.

Air quality is also a serious concern. According to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, the air quality on Wednesday, today and Friday “will likely be the worst we have seen in several years.”

Ground-level ozone concentrations are at unhealthy levels along the Maine coast, and several pollutant levels have been rising, says the DEP, which recommends that people limit their strenuous outdoor activity, particularly if they have respiratory conditions.

 

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.

 

Staff Writer Trevor Maxwell can be contacted at 791-6451 or at:

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