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Hurricane Irene slams into New Jersey, shuts down NYC

Barely a hurricane Sunday but massive and packed with rain, Irene flooded towns, killed 10 people and knocked out power to more than 2 million homes and businesses as it plodded up the East Coast, saving the strongest winds it had left for New York.
/ Source: NBC, and news services

Top developments:

  • Falling trees, rough surf blamed for deaths
  • Storm makes second landfall in New Jersey
  • Power failures leave 2 million in dark
  • Tornado reported in Md., Va., and Del.
  • Tornado warnings issued for New York City and Philadelphia
  • More than 9,000 flights canceled through Monday
  • About 2.5 million ordered to evacuate along East Coast.

Barely a hurricane Sunday but massive and packed with rain, Irene flooded towns, killed 10 people and knocked out power to more than 2 million homes and businesses as it plodded up the East Coast, saving the strongest winds it had left for New York.

The storm made a second landfall near Little Egg Inlet, New Jersey, at around 5:30 a.m. Sunday, with winds an estimated at 75 mph.

All told, about 2.5 million people have been ordered to leave up and down the East Coast. Irene had an enormous wingspan — 500 miles wide — and threatened 65 million people in the region, estimated at largest number of Americans ever affected by a single storm.

The streets of the nation's largest city were eerily quiet Sunday morning, its transit system shut down because of weather for the first time in history. Mayor Michael Bloomberg warned late Saturday that no matter whether residents of low-lying areas heeded his calls to evacuate, "The time for evacuation is over. Everyone should now go inside and stay inside."

The storm hugged the U.S. coastline on a path that could scrape every state along the coast. By Sunday morning, it had sustained winds of 75 mph, down from 100 mph on Friday. That made it a Category 1, the least threatening on a 1-to-5 scale, and barely stronger than a tropical storm. Nevertheless, it was still considered highly dangerous, capable of causing ruinous flooding with a combination of storm surge, high tides and 6 to 12 inches of rain.

Tornadoes were reported in Maryland and Delaware, and several warnings were issued elsewhere, including New York and Philadelphia.

Irene caused flooding from North Carolina to Delaware, both from the seven-foot waves it pushed into the coast and from heavy rain. Eastern North Carolina got 10 to 14 inches of rain, according to the National Weather Service. Virginia's Hampton Roads area was drenched with at least nine inches, with 16 reported in some spots.

More than 1 million homes and businesses lost power in Virginia alone, where three people were killed by falling trees, at least one tornado touched down and about 100 roads were closed. Emergency crews around the region prepared to head out at daybreak to assess the damage, though with some roads impassable and rivers still rising, it could take days.

Some held out optimism that their communities had suffered less damage than they had feared.

"I think it's a little strong to say we dodged a bullet. However, it certainly could have turned out worse for the Hampton Roads area [of Virginia]," said National Weather Service meteorologist Mike Montefusco.

Officials warned residents to remain inside.

"Everything is still in effect," National Hurricane Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen said. "The last thing people should do is go outside. They need to get inside and stay in a safe place until this thing is over."

Ed Rappaport, deputy director of the National Hurricane Center in Florida, said the storm is so large that areas far from Irene's center are going to be feeling strong winds and getting large amounts of rain, he said.

"It is a big, windy, rainy event," he said.

Irene was the first hurricane to make landfall in the continental United States since 2008, and came almost six years to the day after Katrina ravaged New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005. Experts said that probably no other hurricane in American history had threatened as many people.

Airlines said 9,000 flights were canceled, including 3,000 on Saturday. The number of passengers affected could easily be millions because so many flights make connections on the East Coast.

Greyhound suspended bus service between Richmond, Va., and Boston. Amtrak canceled trains in the Northeast for Sunday.

Storm wields death
Storm-toppled trees, roiled surf and other effects left left at least 10 people dead by Saturday night as Irene passed, according to local officials.

In Virginia, falling trees were blamed for the deaths of a man in his 60s at his Chesterfield County house, a car passenger in Brunswick County, and a boy in a Newport News apartment. A falling tree in Maryland killed one person in a Queen Anne's County house.

In North Carolina, a girl died in a wreck after the car she was in crashed at an intersection where Irene had knocked out power to the traffic lights. One person died in a vehicle crash in Pitt County; a man died after a branch fell on him in Nash County; and a man died of a heart attack in Onslow County as he was boarding up his home.

In Florida, a surfer was killed in 10-foot waves at New Smyrna Beach while in New Jersey, a man drowned in 4-foot surf in Flagler County.

Irene-spawned tornadoes struck the Maryland, Delaware, Virginia peninsula known as DelMarVa.

A tornado that ripped through the Sandbridge area of Virginia Beach destroyed five homes and damaged several others. A tornado touched down near Lewes, Del., and damaged 15 buildings, the National Weather Service said. Maryland Police also said they spotted a tornado in a wooded area of the lower eastern shore.

Irene's impact varied by region and state.

New York, New England
As the storm's outer bands reached New York Saturday night, two kayakers capsized and had to be rescued off Staten Island. They received summonses and a dressing-down from Bloomberg, who said at a press conference that they recklessly put rescuers' lives at risk.

Tornado warnings were issued for the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens early Sunday.

In New York, authorities undertook the herculean job of bringing the city to a halt. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority shut down its subways, trains and buses for a natural disaster for the first time, a job that began at noon Saturday and took into late that night to complete.

On Wall Street, sandbags were placed around subway grates near the East River because of fear of flooding. Tarps were spread over other grates. Construction stopped throughout the city, and workers at the site of the World Trade Center dismantled a crane and secured equipment.

New York has seen only a few hurricanes in the past 200 years. The Northeast is much more used to snowstorms — including a blizzard last December, when Bloomberg was criticized for a slow response.

Boston's transit authority said all bus, subway and commuter rail service would be suspended all day Sunday.

New Jersey
The hurricane made secondary landfall at Little Eeg Inlet in New Jersey with 75-mph winds at around 5:30 a.m. ET Sunday, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Roads in coastal areas grew impassable Saturday night and New Jersey State Police urged people to stay off them. Middlesex County and a number of cities and towns, including Jersey City, declared states of emergency and banned all traffic except for emergency vehicles.

More than 1 million people were told to evacuate Cape May County, coastal Atlantic County and Long Beach Island, N.J. Gov. Chris Christie said.

At a news briefing Christie said that he remained concerned because some residents of Atlantic City, particularly senior citizens, were refusing to leave, even though "we are most certainly going to suffer property and structural damage."

New Jersey Transit trains and buses shut down Saturday, as did Atlantic City casinos for only the third time since gambling was legalized 33 years ago.

Exelon Corp. said it took its Oyster Creek nuclear power plant in New Jersey offline as a precautionary measure at 5 p.m. ET. The reactor has a 636 megawatt capacity, enough power for 600,000 homes. .

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett warned that the state will not necessarily be out of danger once the storm has passed: "The rivers may not crest until Tuesday or Wednesday. This isn't just a 24-hour event."

Annette Burton, 72, was asked to leave her Chester, Pa., neighborhood because of danger of rising water from a nearby creek. She said she planned to remain in the row house along with her daughter and adult grandson, although with a wary eye on the park across the street that routinely floods during heavy rains.

"I'm not a fool; if it starts coming up from the park, I'm leaving," she said. "It's the wind I'm more concerned about than anything."

In Philadelphia, Mayor Michael Nutter declared a state of emergency, the first for the city since 1986, when racial tensions were running high. "We are trying to save lives and don't have time for silliness," he said.

Early on Sunday, President Barack Obama declared an emergency situation in Delaware and ordered federal aid to supplement state and local response efforts.

Areas around the Delaware River in and around Wilmington were being evacuated because of expected floods, George Giles, director of the Wilmington Department of Emergency Management, told MSNBC-TV.

The Indian River Inlet Bridge was closed Saturday afternoon to all but emergency traffic and the governor banned non-essential travel in the state.

Kent General Hospital in Dover was flooded and crews were pumping water to save its electrical system.

A nuclear reactor at Maryland's Calvert Cliffs went offline automatically when winds knocked off a large piece of aluminum siding that came into contact with the facility's main transformer late Saturday night. An "unusual event" was declared, the lowest of four emergency classifications by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but Constellation Energy Nuclear Group spokesman Mark Sullivan said the facility and all employees were safe.

Near Callway, Md., about 30 families were warned that a dam could spill over, causing significant flooding, and that they should either leave their homes or stay upstairs. St. Mary's County spokeswoman Sue Sabo said the dam was not in danger of breaching.

Gov. Martin O'Malley said he was hopeful that forecasts are correct in calling for a Chesapeake Bay tidal surge of no greater than 3 feet.

More than 5,000 residents were in 20 shelters set up by the state, O'Malley said.

Winds were expected to create a reverse tide, pulling water out of places like Annapolis and Baltimore, which had a larger than expected surge during Tropical Storm Isabel.

St. Mary's County issued a potential St. Mary's Lake Dam failure notification after more than 7 inches of rain fell, NBC Washington reported. People downstream of the dam were in danger of flooding.

Falling trees pulled down power lines and fell into homes.

National Weather Service warned of flooding in parts of southern and central Maryland and the Eastern Shore, with up to 8 inches of rain on lower Eastern Shore.

The Maryland Transit Administration suspended service Saturday evening.

Virginia and Washington, D.C.
The storm arrived in Washington just days after an earthquake damaged some of the capital's most famous structures, including the Washington Monument. Irene could test Washington's ability to protect its national treasures and its poor.

Early on Sunday, Obama declared an emergency situation in the District of Columbia and ordered federal aid to supplement state and local response efforts.

Heavy wind and rain were pounded the nation's capital Saturday night, NBC Washington reported. About 20,000 people were without power in the Washington area, only a few of them in the city itself, where sandbags were no longer available.

A roof of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Georgetown University partially collapsed.

Wind and rain pummeled the Virginia coast, and flooding was expected. Rain in the capital was falling about a half-inch per hour around midnight Saturday night, with the worst yet to hit.

The Norfolk Naval Air Station was enduring rain with wind of 59 mph at 7 p.m. ET, according to the National Weather Service. By 11 p.m., winds were to 54 mph.

Falling trees hit houses and blocked streets in Fairfax County, Va., where street flooding was also reported.

The heavy rain blanketing the region was overflowing many creeks and streams, closing many area roads, including Sligo Creek Parkway, Beach Drive, Little Falls Parkway, NBC Washington reported. Residents at Four Mile Run and Cameron Run were warned to watch for high water.

North Carolina
In North Carolina, where at least two people were killed, Gov. Beverly Perdue said Irene inflicted significant damage along the North Carolina coast and some areas were unreachable.

"Folks are cut off in parts of North Carolina, and obviously we're not going to get anybody to do an assessment until it's safe," she said.

Irene made its official landfall just after first light near Cape Lookout, N.C., at the southern end of the Outer Banks, the ribbon of land that bows out into the Atlantic Ocean. Shorefront hotels and houses were lashed with waves, two piers were destroyed and at least one hospital was forced to run on generator power.

Eastern North Carolina got 10 inches to 14 inches of rain, according to the National Weather Service.