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Irene churns up coast, weaker but still ferocious

 


AP Photo/Steve Helber

A stranded sailboat founders in the surf along the Willoughby Spit area of Norfolk, Va. as Hurricane Irene hits Norfolk, Va., Saturday. The live-aboard couple attempted to outrun the storm and got caught up in the high surf and wind. They were rescued by local fire and rescue personnel.

NAGS HEAD, N.C. (AP) — Weaker but still menacing, Hurricane Irene knocked out power and piers in North Carolina, clobbered Virginia with wind and churned up the coast Saturday to confront cities more accustomed to snowstorms than tropical storms. New York City emptied its streets and subways and waited with an eerie quiet.

With most of its transportation machinery shut down, the Eastern Seaboard spent the day nervously watching the storm's march across a swath of the nation inhabited by 65 million people. The hurricane had an enormous wingspan — 500 miles, its outer reaches stretching from the Carolinas to Cape Cod — and packed wind gusts of 115 mph.

Almost 900,000 homes and businesses were without power. While it was too early to assess the full threat, Irene was blamed for three deaths. A North Carolina man was struck by a flying tree limb, someone in Virginia was killed when a tree fell on a car, and an 11-year-old boy in Virginia died when a tree crashed through his apartment building.

The hurricane stirred up 7-foot waves, and forecasters warned of storm-surge danger on the coasts of Virginia and Delaware, along the Jersey Shore and in New York Harbor and Long Island Sound. In the Northeast, drenched by rain this summer, the ground is already saturated, raising the risk of flooding.

Irene made its official landfall just after first light near Cape Lookout, N.C., at the southern end of the Outer Banks, the ribbon of land that bows out into the Atlantic Ocean. Shorefront hotels and houses were lashed with waves. Two piers were destroyed, and at least one hospital was forced to run on generator power.

"Things are banging against the house," Leon Reasor said as he rode out the storm in the town of Buxton. "I hope it doesn't get worse, but I know it will. I just hate hurricanes."

By afternoon, the storm had weakened to sustained winds of 80 mph, down from 100 mph on Friday. That made it a Category 1, the least threatening on a 1-to-5 scale, and barely stronger than a tropical storm. Its center was positioned almost exactly where North Carolina meets Virginia at the Atlantic, and it was moving more slowly, at 13 mph, and back out toward the ocean.

After the Outer Banks, the storm strafed Virginia with rain and strong wind. It covered the Hampton Roads region, which is thick with inlets and rivers and floods easily, and chugged north toward Chesapeake Bay. Shaped like a massive inverted comma, the storm had a thick northern flank that covered all of Delaware, almost all of Maryland and the eastern half of Virginia.

It was the first hurricane to make landfall in the continental United States since 2008, and came almost six years to the day after Katrina ravaged New Orleans. Experts guessed that no other hurricane in American history had threatened as many people.

At least 2.3 million were under orders to move to somewhere safer, although it was unclear how many obeyed or, in some cases, how they could.

AP Photo/Steve Helber

A stranded sailboat founders in the surf along the Willoughby Spit area of Norfolk, Va. as Hurricane Irene hits Norfolk, Va., Saturday. The live-aboard couple attempted to outrun the storm and got caught up in the high surf and wind. They were rescued by local fire and rescue personnel.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told 6,500 troops from all branches of the military to get ready to pitch in on relief work, and President Barack Obama visited the Federal Emergency Management Agency's command center in Washington and offered moral support.

"It's going to be a long 72 hours," he said, "and obviously a lot of families are going to be affected."

In New York, authorities began the herculean job of bringing the city to a halt. The subway began shutting down at noon, the first time the system was closed because of a natural disaster. It was expected to take as long as eight hours for all the trains to complete their runs and be taken out of service.

On Wall Street, sandbags were placed around subway grates near the East River because of fear of flooding. Tarps were placed over other grates. Construction stopped throughout the city, and workers at the site of the World Trade Center dismantled a crane and secured equipment.

While there were plenty of cabs on the street, the city was far quieter than on an average Saturday. In some of the busiest parts of Manhattan, it was possible to cross a major avenue without looking, and the waters of New York Harbor, which might normally be churning from boat traffic, were quiet before the storm.

 

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