(photo credit: REUTERS/NASA)
WILMINGTON, NC - Hurricane Irene lashed North Carolina with driving wind and rain on Saturday as it neared land on a path threatening the densely populated US east coast with flooding and power outages.
New York City ordered unprecedented evacuations and transit shutdowns as states from the Carolinas through to Maine declared emergencies due to Irene, whose nearly 600 mile (960 km) width guaranteed a stormy weekend for tens of millions of people.
With winds of 90 miles per hour, Irene weakened slightly to a Category 1 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale by early on Saturday but it remained a dangerous storm.
"Tonight's the hard night. We're just waiting for it to hit," North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue told CNN.
At 3 a.m. EDT (0700 GMT), the center of Irene was about 60 miles south
of Cape Lookout, North Carolina, the US National Hurricane Center said.
"Irene is expected to remain near the threshold of Category One and
Category Two strength," the center said. "Some weakening is expected
after Irene reaches the coast of North Carolina but Irene is forecast to
remain a hurricane as it moves along the mid-Atlantic coast on Sunday."
Hundreds of thousands of residents and vacationers had evacuated from
Irene's path. Supermarkets and hardware stores were inundated with
people stocking up on food, water, flashlights, batteries, generators
and other supplies.
"Our number of customers has tripled in the last day or two as people
actually said 'Wow, this thing is going to happen'," said Jack Gurnon,
owner of a hardware store in Boston's affluent Beacon Hill neighborhood.
Airlines canceled nearly 7,000 flights over the weekend and all three
major New York area airports were due to close to incoming flights at
noon (1600 GMT) on Saturday.
President Barack Obama said the unusually large storm could be
"extremely dangerous and costly" for a nation that still recalls the
destruction in 2005 from Hurricane Katrina, which swamped New Orleans,
killed up to 1,800 people and caused $80 billion in damage.
Irene, the first hurricane of the 2011 Atlantic season, caused as much
as $1.1 billion in insured losses in the Caribbean this week,
catastrophe modeling company AIR Worldwide said, with more losses
expected to come.