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East Coast braces as Irene warnings spread northward

Irene rocks the Bahamas

Aug. 26, 201100:43
/ Source: NBC, and news services

Top Developments:

- Hurricane watch issues for areas along the coast north of New Jersey, including Long Island, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, Mass.
- Hurricane warning area now extends from N.C. coast northward to Sandy Hook, N.J., which is just south of New York City.
- Hundreds of thousands told to evacuate in N.C., Md., N.J., Va. areas.
- NYC orders hospitals, nursing homes in low-lying areas to evacuate. - 8 injured by rough ocean in Fla. - New York, Connecticut join N.C., Va., Md. and N.J. in declaring state of emergency.
- Hundreds of homes destroyed in Bahamas.

Hurricane Irene weakened slightly early Friday to a Category 2 storm as it approached the U.S. East Coast, where a hurricane warning was extended to New Jersey.

But the National Hurricane Center said some re-strengthening was possible and the storm was expected to be near the threshold between a Category 2 and 3 storm as it reached North Carolina's coast.

The massive storm was expected to track farther inland, threatening 65 million people along a shore-hugging path along the Eastern Seaboard from North Carolina to New England.

In South Florida, eight people were out on a jetty off Boynton Beach Inlet when a wave churned up by the outer bands of Irene knocked them over, Palm Beach County officials said. One person was taken to a hospital; seven others were treated at the scene.

Widespread power outages are likely along the Eastern Coast, and damage from storm surges, fallen trees and flooding could end up in the billions of dollars.

"What we have to do is assume the worst, prepare for that, and hope for the best," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg told reporters.

New York City, Long Island, Atlantic City and Virginia Beach were among the areas now near the center of Irene's forecast path, along with even more areas of North Carolina, where Irene is expected to make a first landfall on Saturday near Ocracoke Island. The storm could drench parts of the region with as much as 15 inches of rain.

The center of the storm was still about 420 miles south-southwest of Cape Hatteras, N.C., and moving to the north at 14 mph.

After hitting North Carolina, Irene is expected to move Sunday into the Delaware, Maryland and Virginia coastal region and then on to New York. A Category 2 storm carries winds of 96 to 110 mph.

"Any further deviation left could bring direct impacts as far inland as the Washington-Baltimore area," National Hurricane Center Director Bill Read said.

"We're going to have storm surge issues all the way up the coast," Read said. "We're going to have flash flooding" as well, since the soil is still saturated from recent rain. And given Irene's winds and the saturated soil "we should see a lot of trees down, with the power outages that go with that."

Emergencies were declared in several Eastern states as a way to marshal resources ahead of time.

At 5 a.m. ET Friday, Irene remained powerful but the storm's maximum sustained winds had decreased slightly to 110 mph, .

The core of the hurricane was expected to pass well offshore of the east coast of Florida before approaching coastal North Carolina on Saturday.

Below is a look at Irene's most recent impacts, as well as preparations:

Bahamas. Irene destroyed hundreds of homes on small Bahamian islands but largely spared the capital Nassau on Thursday as it tore over the sprawling archipelago in its way toward the U.S. East Coast.

There were no immediate reports of deaths, but some small settlements reported up to 90 percent of their homes damaged while assessments from other islands were not in because telephone lines were down.

Irene left a mess of scattered debris, toppled trees and minor flooding but no major damage.

Irene rocks the Bahamas

Aug. 26, 201100:43

Downtown Nassau with its colorful limestone buildings was largely unscathed, but the Straw Market, a well-known shopping spot for tourists, did not survive. The canvas roof was torn and the metal frame was damaged, leaving about 600 craft stalls exposed to the wind and rain.

Merchant Larry McDonald, a wood carver, had thought to pack away his merchandise, but others did not and their goods were soaked from the rain. He said the market would not be able to operate.

"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.

Nassau residents expressed concern about fellow Bahamians in Eleuthera and other islands.

About 90 percent of the homes in two settlements known as Lovely Bay and Chesters on Acklins Islands were destroyed and no longer inhabitable, said Gayle Outten-Moncur, the operating officer of the Emergency Management Agency in the Bahamas. A total of about 100 homes were damaged, she said.

On the island of Mayaguana, where roughly 250 people live, about 40 homes were damaged, she said.

North Carolina. An evacuation order took effect for an estimated 150,000 tourists in coastal Dare County hours after forecasters issued a hurricane watch for much of the state's coast.

Dare County's residents were told Thursday that they would have to evacuate by Friday as well.

"It wouldn't behoove anyone to stay in these circumstances," Dare County emergency management spokeswoman Sharon Sullivan said. "Businesses are boarding up. Nobody can guarantee their safety."

Carteret, Currituck and Hyde counties on Thursday also told tourists to move inland. Hyde extended that to its residents as well.

Irene could hit North Carolina's Outer Banks on Saturday afternoon with winds around 115 mph.

President Barack Obama declared an emergency for the state, a move to fast-track whatever federal help is needed after the storm hits.

The Outer Banks have a long history of hurricanes, and building codes and emergency plans reflect that. Structures in the region are designed to withstand up to 110 mph sustained winds and gusts of up to 130 mph for three minutes. Evacuation routes are meticulously planned, down to the order in which counties hit the road.

Ocracoke Island, a tiny Outer Banks community, has already ordered visitors off, but it has special challenges since it's only accessible to the mainland by boat.

Some of the region's most popular destinations rely on the ailing Bonner Bridge, which was built in 1963 and intended to last 30 years, to connect Hatteras Island to the northern Outer Banks. There's no other way to reach Hatteras except by boat.

The bridge handles about 2 million cars a year and the state DOT ranks it a 2 on its safety meter, with 100 being the highest, or most safe, designation.

"We're going to shift people and resources around to do what we need to do and keep the roads open," said North Carolina Department of Transportation spokeswoman Nicole Meister. The 2.7-mile bridge won't stay open if it's deemed unsafe — which happened during Hurricane Earl last year — but the state has an emergency ferry terminal ready in that case to get people off the island, Meister said.

Virginia. A mandatory evacuation was ordered Thursday for the beach community of Chincoteague.

The Navy ordered the Second Fleet in southeastern Virginia, including at Norfolk Naval Station, to leave so ships would be safe from the approaching hurricane. Thursday's order applied to 64 ships in the area, some of which were already at sea.

The Navy said ships at sea can better weather storms. The move will also help protect piers from being damaged.

Cities along the state's coast were reviewing their evacuation plans.

New York City. Mayor Bloomberg on Thursday ordered five hospitals and numerous nursing homes in low-lying areas to evacuate by Friday unless they get an exemption from the city.

"Whenever the city has faced a difficult, tough situation, New Yorkers have always shown courage, compassion, presence of mind, and have been innovative in dealing with whatever is thrown at them. And I have confidence that they will do that again," Bloomberg said.

He added that he expected to make a decision by Saturday morning whether residents in the city's so-called "Zone-A" would need to evacuate as well.

That zone includes neighborhoods along the coast, including Battery Park City in Manhattan, Coney Island in Brooklyn and Far Rockaway in Queens. The city also placed information about evacuation possibilities online.

Crews are working to clean out catch basins to help with street drainage. The city has also moved police boats to station houses in low-lying areas, hired emergency forest contractors and topped off emergency generators with fuel.

Officials are also looking at how to secure 26 tower cranes across the city that are only rated to withstand winds up to 65 mph, WNBC-TV reported.

The city's subway stations and tunnels would likely be flooded in places, and officials plan to shut the system down ahead of time to reduce damage to the infrastructure.

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.

Long Island, N.Y. Nassau County officials said they would evacuate barrier islands if Irene's track does not change. School buses were moved to higher ground in case they're needed to evacuate residents.

Maryland. The 125,000 or so visitors and residents in Ocean City were told Thursday to evacuate due to the high chance of flooding. Gov. Martin O'Malley declared a state of emergency.

Washington, D.C. The dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall has been postponed indefinitely. No new date has been set for the dedication originally planned for Sunday. Obama was to have spoken at the ceremony. Organizers had previously said they expected to draw up to 250,000 people.

Electric power provider Pepco Inc said it had requested 600 emergency workers from other regions, and had already deployed 150 of them, to prepare for Irene's heavy rain and high winds.

"The subsequent restoration could be a multiday event," the utility warned customers on its website.

Railway operator Amtrak canceled trains operating south of Washington for Friday, Saturday and Sunday. "Additional cancellations may be necessary in the coming days as the major storm moves north," the railway said in an alert on its website.

New Jersey. Evacuations were ordered Thursday in Cape May County, which has about 100,000 year-round residents and hundreds of thousands of seasonal visitors to its many beach resorts.

Gov. Chris Christie earlier told people planning to visit the shore this weekend to stay home.

Forecasters say Irene is likely to cause flooding across the already rain-soaked state. Winds also could take down power lines.

The Garden State has gotten twice as much rain this month as in a normal August, and high tide happens at 8 a.m. ET on Sunday, when Irene might be passing by, noted New Jersey state climatologist David Robinson.

"You want to go into a hurricane threat with dry soil, low rivers, a half moon," he added.

Connecticut. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy declared a state of emergency in Connecticut as residents stocked up on generators and other provisions.

"There's no way that looking at any of the maps we're seeing now that one could feel secure that we'll dodge this ... We're becoming more certain that we're likely to be impacted," Malloy said.

Connecticut Light & Power, which serves 1.2 million customers, cancelled vacations, putting all its personnel on standby and coordinating with sister companies in Massachusetts and New Hampshire to have additional crews available to restore power.

Massachusetts. Roads and bridges are likely to bear the weather in good condition, said Peter Judge, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency. But the agency is planning for flooding and is keeping an eye on the 3,000 public and private dams throughout the state.

Hurricanes are rare in the Northeast because the region's cooler seas tend to weaken storms as they approach, and they have to take a narrow track to strike New York without first hitting other parts of the coast and weakening there.