NAGS HEAD, N.C. — Some 65 million people along the densely populated U.S. East Coast waited warily today for a dangerous hurricane that could inflict billions in damages in an arc from Washington to Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston.
Rain carried by Hurricane Irene’s outer bands was already reaching the southeastern part of North Carolina said National Weather Service meteorologist Rachel Zouzias. But the main thrust of the hurricane wasn’t expected in North Carolina until sometime Saturday.
Irene would be the strongest to strike the East Coast in seven years.
Irene weakened slightly today, dropping down to a Category 2 storm with maximum sustained winds near 110 mph (175 kph). But some re-strengthening was possible and the storm was expected to be between a Category 2 and 3 storm as it reached North Carolina’s coast, the National Hurricane Center said.
The powerful hurricane Irene destroyed hundreds of homes on small Bahamian islands but largely spared the capital of Nassau as it tore over the sprawling archipelago Thursday. There were no immediate reports of deaths, but some small settlements reported up to 90 per cent of their homes damaged. Assessments from other islands were not in because telephone lines were down.
Larry McDonald, a wood carver, had thought to pack away his merchandise, but others in Nassau’s Straw Market did not.
“How are we going to open? Ain’t nobody going to come here to buy stuff. Might be for weeks, might be for months,” he said.
The U.S. hurricane warning area was expanded to covered the coast from North Carolina north to Sandy Hook, New Jersey, which is just south of New York City. A hurricane watch extended even farther north and included Long Island, and the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket in Massachusetts.
Knowing such a storm is on the way, farmer Wilson Daughtry shrugged off an evacuation order and raced to harvest all the corn and squash he could in North Carolina. Hundreds of miles further north in Maine, lobsterman Greg Griffin said fishermen were stowing traps and tying up boats, heeding forecasts of 30-foot (9-meter) battering waves ahead.
North Carolina was just first in line along the Eastern Seaboard — home to some of the nation’s most heavily populated areas and some of its priciest real estate. Besides major cities, sprawling suburban bedroom communities, ports, airports, highway networks, cropland and mile after mile of beachfront neighbourhoods are in harm’s way.
“One of my greatest nightmares was having a major hurricane go up the whole Northeast coast,” Max Mayfield, the National Hurricane Center’s retired director, told The Associated Press. “This is going to be a real challenge ... There’s going to be millions of people affected.”
The centre of the storm was still about 375 miles (600 kilometres) south-southwest of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and moving to the north at 14 mph (22 kph).
Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers were told Thursday to pack a bag and be prepared to move. The nation’s biggest city hasn’t seen a hurricane in decades.
Farther south, tens of thousands packed up and left North Carolina beach towns and farmers pulled up their crops. Daughtry has lost count of how many times his crops have been wiped out by storms.
“That’s the price of living in paradise,” he said.
Coastal North Carolina’s fields earned nearly $6.3 billion in farm income in 2009 alone from tobacco, corn and other crops.
Risks are many from Irene’s wrath: surging seas, drenching rains, flash floods and high winds are all possibilities the Federal Emergency Management Agency director wasn’t counting out.
“We’re going to have damages, we just don’t know how bad,” Craig Fugate told AP as FEMA readied plans in many states. “This is one of the largest populations that will be impacted by one storm at one time.”
Mary Thomas of Nags Head, a 34-year-old motel worker, worried about her job.
“We depend on tourism,” said Thomas. “If we’re hit, the motel will be shut down for a while. Businesses will be closed. People will have to rebuild. And that means I’ll be out of a job.”
Latest forecasts had Irene crashing up the North Carolina coastline Saturday, then churning up the East while drenching areas from Virginia to New York City before a much-weakened storm reaches New England.
Even if the winds aren’t strong enough to damage buildings in a metropolis made of brick, concrete and steel, much of New York’s subway system and other infrastructure is underground and subject to flooding. New York City’s two main airports also are close to the water and could also be inundated, as could densely packed neighbourhoods.
All told, Irene could cause billions of dollars in damages or more along the Eastern Seaboard in a worst case scenario, said Kathleen Tierney, director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado.
In the last 200 years, New York has seen only a few significant hurricanes. In September of 1821, a hurricane raised tides by 13 feet in an hour and flooded all of Manhattan south of Canal Street, the southernmost tip of the city. The area now includes Wall Street and the World Trade Center memorial.
New England is also unaccustomed to direct hits from hurricanes. Griffin, who fishes from Portland, Maine, still recalls the clobbering when Hurricane Gloria struck in 1985.
“We have a young generation of lobstermen who’ve never experienced a full-blown hurricane,” Griffin warned.
The first U.S. injuries from Irene appeared to be in South Florida near West Palm Beach where eight people were washed off a jetty Thursday by a large wave.
In Washington, Irene dashed hopes of dedicating a 30-foot sculpture to the late Martin Luther King Jr. on the National Mall on Sunday with the help of President Barack Obama.
In Connecticut, Gov. Daniel P. Malloy declared a state of emergency and warned there could be prolonged power outages if Irene dumps up to a foot (.3 metre) of rain on already saturated ground.
“We are a much more urban state than we were in 1938,” he said, referring to the year that the “Long Island Express” hurricane killed 600 people and caused major damage with 17-foot (5.2-meter) storm surges and high winds.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie encouraged anyone on his state’s heavily built-up shoreline to evacuate.
Hurricanes have made landfall on New Jersey just twice in the last 200 years, in 1821 and 1903, the latter battering Atlantic City. But the state now has 8.8 million people and coastal areas packed with homes and businesses.
The beach community of Ocean City, Maryland, ordered thousands of people to leave.
“This is not a time to get out the camera and sit on the beach and take pictures of the waves,” said Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.