NAGS HEAD, N.C. – As massive Hurricane Irene advanced toward the Eastern Seaboard with 115 mph winds, officials issued a hurricane warning for the entire North Carolina coast to the Virginia border, New York ordered low-lying hospitals and nursing homes to evacuate, and at least seven states declared emergencies.
The Eastern Seaboard from the Carolinas to Cape Cod is in the path of Irene, a Category 3 storm that moved north from the Bahamas Thursday.
North Carolina will take the initial blow, National Hurricane Center Director Bill Read said. If the hurricane follows its projected path, it will make landfall along the state’s Outer Banks on Saturday.
“This could be a 100-year event,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg advised residents to prepare for possible flooding – “and do not swim.”
In Washington, officials postponed Sunday’s dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial indefinitely because of the impending hurricane.
The National Hurricane Center warned of tidal surges 5 to 10 feet high in North Carolina, accompanied by “destructive and life-threatening waves.” Irene could inundate the state’s coastal areas with 5 to 10 inches of rain Saturday and up to a dozen inches in some locations, forecasters said.
More than 50 million people live in the projected path of the storm. Some forecasters have said Irene has an outside chance of growing into a Category 4 storm, with sustained winds topping 131 mph. But current forecasts predict that it will diminish to a Category 2 storm after pummeling North Carolina, with sustained winds up to 110 mph as it plows into Virginia, Maryland and Delaware.
North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut declared states of emergency. In North Carolina, Gov. Bev Perdue included all counties east of Interstate 95, roughly a quarter of the state. Officials set up emergency shelters inland.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency established depots for food, water, generators, baby formula and other emergency supplies at Ft. Bragg, N.C.; McGuire Air Force Base, N.J.; and Westover Air Reserve Base in Massachusetts.
The latest projections show Irene making landfall Saturday along the Outer Banks between Morehead City, N.C., and Cape Hatteras before pushing north.
“This is a very dangerous storm,” said Dorothy Toolan of the Dare County Emergency Management office in Manteo, N.C., across the Roanoke Sound from Nags Head. “People really need to take this seriously.”
Irene would be the first hurricane to hit the U.S. mainland since Ike devastated the Texas coast in 2008.
Dare County, N.C., officials ordered the 34,000 year-round residents to evacuate, effective 8 a.m. today. But many local residents said they intended to stay because they had survived numerous hurricanes and nor’easters over the years.
“I’m going to hunker down and ride it out, like I always do,” said Karen Sealock, a restaurant manager who lives in Nags Head.
Sealock said she had survived at least a dozen serious storms in her 21 years on the barrier island. She evacuated only once, and that was because her mother begged her to get out of the way of Hurricane Isabel – which made landfall on the Outer Banks with winds of 105 mph in 2003.
Lionel and Clara Mae Shannon, who were born and raised on the Outer Banks, intended to ignore the mandatory evacuation and stay at their home in Manteo, on Roanoke Island, a few miles west of Nags Head. Now in their late 60s, they have weathered countless storms inside their wood and cedar shake home.
“We always stay, and we’re staying now. We’ll be just fine,” Lionel Shannon said.
Toolan, of the local emergency management center, said Irene has the potential to be among the most punishing storms to batter the Outer Banks in decades.
“I don’t think too many of the people who live around here have seen a storm of this magnitude,” she said. “This could be a really, really big one.”