Obama, US officials urge people to heed evacuation notices

370,000 evacuate as airlines, bus systems, subways, rail services prepare to halt; Hurricane Irene expected to make landfall along North Carolina coast Saturday morning.

August 27, 2011 11:09
3 minute read.
Hurricane Irene

Irene 311. (photo credit: REUTERS/NASA)

President Barack Obama said the impact of the unusually large storm could be "extremely dangerous and costly" for a nation that still recalls the destruction of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

"All indications point to this being a historic hurricane," Obama said.

US federal and state leaders, from Obama downward, urged the millions of Americans in the hurricane's path to prepare and to heed evacuation orders if they received them.

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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 am 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."

According to The New York Times, 370,000 people evacuated along the projected trajectory of the storm. Supermarkets and hardware stores were inundated with people stocking up on food, water, flashlights, batteries, generators and other supplies.

Airlines canceled nearly 8,000 weekend flights as the storm swept up the US east coast toward New York, forcing carriers to move planes to safer areas and halting services at the busiest US hub.

The disruption was part of an extraordinary preemptive effort by business and governments to limit public exposure to Irene's fury by shutting down heavily traveled transportation networks.

Subway and bus systems and passenger rail services also planned to halt service. Motorists were urged to stay off roads and key bridges would close if hurricane winds exceeded certain speeds.

As authorities from Washington to Boston prepared for ferocious winds, torrential rain and flooding, major airlines advised passengers to reconsider travel plans.

The three major New York-area airports said late on Friday they would halt domestic and overseas arrivals at noon EDT (1600 GMT) on Saturday. Departures were still planned until further notice, according to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Big airlines had already canceled much of their New York schedules into Monday.

"We are laying in supplies, things like tarps to throw over computers and electronics should we shut down the terminals, and plywood so that if there is any glass damage we can move quickly to secure those areas," said Ed Martelle, a spokesman for American Airlines, a unit of AMR Corp.

The Northeast is the most congested area of US air space, with John F. Kennedy and LaGuardia airports in New York and Newark in New Jersey handling nearly 100 million domestic and international passengers annually.

Disruptions in the region ripple throughout the country and affect international flights.

The worst of the storm is expected to hit the mid-Atlantic region late on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. Repositioning planes again and restarting service can take time and will lead to more cancellations and delays on Monday.

Most carriers were expected to shut down operations for about 24 hours, airlines and transportation officials said.

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