Weaker, but still deadly, Irene hits N.C.

Makes way up coast; surge concerns raised

Workers at a residential building in the financial district of Manhattan stacked sandbags in anticipation of flood waters yesterday. Workers at a residential building in the financial district of Manhattan stacked sandbags in anticipation of flood waters yesterday. (John Minchillo/Associated Press)
By Kim Severson and Dan Barry
New York Times / August 28, 2011

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COINJOCK, N.C. - Weakened but unbowed, Hurricane Irene mowed across coastal North Carolina and Virginia yesterday as it churned up the Atlantic Seaboard toward a battened-down New York City, where officials had taken what were called the unprecedented steps of evacuating low-lying areas and shutting down the mass transit system in advance of the storm’s expected midmorning arrival today.

Announcing itself with howling winds and hammering rains, the hurricane made landfall at Cape Lookout, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, about 7:30 a.m., ending several days of anxious anticipation and beginning days of response and cleanup.

Across the Atlantic Seaboard, and most particularly in New York, officials frantically tried to convince people to heed evacuation orders.

“Staying behind is dangerous, staying behind is foolish, and it’s against the law,’’ New York City’s mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg, said amid reports that some people - in his city as well as in other communities - were not leaving. “And we urge everyone in the evacuation zones not to wait until gale-force winds.

“The time to leave is right now.’’

In Nags Head on the Outer Banks, the day began with surging waves eating away at the dunes, while winds peeled the siding from vacated beach houses - as if to challenge the National Hurricane Center’s early-morning decision to downgrade Irene to a Category 1 hurricane, whose maximum sustained winds would reach only 90 miles per hour, with occasional stronger gusts.

The hurricane also quickly contributed to at least eight deaths, including two children. An 11-year-old boy in Virginia was killed when a tree crashed through his roof and a North Carolina child died in a crash at an intersection where traffic lights were out. Four other people were killed by falling trees or tree limbs - two in Virginia, one in North Carolina, and one in Maryland. A surfer and a beachgoer in Florida were killed in heavy waves.

By the evening, the massive storm was pushing back out to sea and continuing north at about 13 miles per hour and producing tornado watches and warnings from Delaware to New York City. Laurie Hogan, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s operations on Long Island, said the storm was expected to hit Long Island a little after 8 a.m. today and cause storm surges of 7 feet at the southern tip of Staten Island, and more than 5 feet at Battery Park, at the bottom of Manhattan.

By tonight, Hogan said, southern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York will have received as much as 9 inches of rain.

New York City scrambled to complete the evacuation of about 370,000 residents in areas where officials expected flooding to follow the storm. Officials also ordered the public transportation system - subways, buses and commuter rail lines - to shut down yesterday for what they said was the first time in history.

Officials in Boston announced late yesterday that all MBTA buses, subways and commuter trains would cease service all of today, as well. And as wind gusts reached 72 to 80 miles per hour in Maryland, transportation officials closed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

Bloomberg said mass transit in New York was “unlikely to be back’’ in service tomorrow. He also raised the specter of electrical shutdowns in parts of the city, though the power company, Con Ed, said it had no immediate plans to take such dire action.

Federal, state, and local officials along the East Coast strongly recommended that people not be fooled into complacency by the hurricane’s loss of wind speed once it hit land. They said that a central concern was the storm surge of such a large, slow-moving hurricane - the deluge to be dumped from the sky or thrown onto shore by violent waves moving like snapped blankets.

“I would very much take this seriously,’’ Brian McNoldy, a research associate of the Department of Atmospheric Research at Colorado State University, said. “Don’t be concerned if it’s a Category 1, 2, 3, 4. If you’re on the coast, you don’t want to be there. Wind isn’t your problem.’’

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, still seeking to redeem itself from its spotty performance after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, had 18 disaster-response teams in place along the East Coast, with stockpiles of food, water and mobile communications equipment ready to go. The Coast Guard had more than 20 rescue helicopters and reconnaissance planes ready to take off. The Defense Department had 6,500 active duty military personnel poised for deployment. The National Guard had about 101,000 members available to respond. The American Red Cross had more than 200 emergency response vehicles and tens of thousands of ready-to-eat meals in areas due to be hit by the storm.

President Obama returned to Washington early from his vacation on Martha’s Vineyard and issued federal emergency declarations for North Carolina, Virginia, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. The declarations clear the way for federal support in responding to the hurricane’s aftermath, which could affect more than 50 million people and cause significant financial harm.

For most of yesterday, though, other states along the Atlantic Seaboard could do little more than see their own reflection in the toll being exacted by the hurricane in its first victims, North Carolina and Virginia, where more than 1 million people had lost power by the late afternoon. The communities of Wrightsville Beach and Carolina Beach in North Carolina struggled with flooding, while Atlantic Beach, N.C., dealt with a pier’s partial collapse. And just outside the port city of Wilmington, N.C., the dangerous weather conditions forced the police to suspend the search for a teenage boy who had jumped off a boat ramp and into the churning waters.

Power was out for about half of Wilmington’s 106,000 residents. At New Hanover Regional Medical Center, several dozen children had spent the night in sleeping bags and inflatable beds, arriving with staff members who had to work and parents from the area who wanted a safe place to wait the storm out.