MOREHEAD, N.C. – A ferocious, 200-mile-wide storm barreled north toward the Eastern Seaboard on Friday, as President Barack Obama and other officials warned millions of nervous Americans in the nation’s most densely populated corridor to prepare for a pummeling by Hurricane Irene.
The president cut his vacation in Martha’s Vineyard by a day to return to Washington, airlines announced plans to cancel more than 6,000 flights, stores were emptied of batteries and water, and tourists and residents fled dozens of beach towns and coastal communities that could be savaged by the storm.
New York City officials ordered the first mandatory evacuation in its history, insisting that a quarter-million people leave low-lying neighborhoods before the storm was to hit today. They also announced plan to shut the city’s vast public transportation system – meaning all subways, buses and trains.
Federal and state agencies activated emergency plans to help with what officials predicted would be widespread power outages, evacuations, flooding and storm surges from North Carolina to Maine. The Red Cross opened up emergency shelters along the storm’s projected path.
Nine states declared emergencies and called up National Guard troops to assist in rescues and other emergencies. The Federal Emergency Management Agency moved industrial generators, medicine, bottled water and other supplies to staging bases in North Carolina, New Jersey and Massachusetts.
Hurricane warnings were issued from North Carolina to New York, and watches were posted farther north, on the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard off Massachusetts. Evacuation orders covered at least 2.3 million people, including 1 million in New Jersey, 315,000 in Maryland, 300,000 in North Carolina, 200,000 in Virginia and 100,000 in Delaware.
“This is probably the largest number of people that have been threatened by a single hurricane in the United States,” said Jay Baker, a geography professor at Florida State University.
With the devastation of Hurricane Katrina still painfully fresh – New Orleans and the Gulf Coast will mark the sixth anniversary next week – the Obama administration seemed determined not to appear to be caught flatfooted.
“I cannot stress this highly enough,” Obama told reporters Friday afternoon at the beachfront compound he rented in Chilmark, Mass. “If you are in the projected path of this hurricane, you have to take precautions now. Don’t wait. Don’t delay. We all hope for the best, but we have to be prepared for the worst.”
Irene raked the Bahamas earlier this week, causing widespread flooding and substantial damage. But it lost force and was a Category 1 on Friday night, packing winds of up to 95 mph.
The storm was expected to strengthen again before roaring into barrier islands off North Carolina this afternoon. Forecasters fear it will then start rampaging north toward Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston.
It is expected to dump several inches of rain in the mid-Atlantic and New England. Much of the ground is already saturated from heavy rains this month, and residents were warned to expect falling trees and heavy flooding.
The storm comes in the same week as a once-in-a-lifetime earthquake, which rattled building and nerves in much of the East on Tuesday, causing more bewilderment than damage. But officials say Irene appeared to pose a much more serious danger.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave residents of low-lying areas in the city’s five boroughs until this evening to leave their neighborhoods for shelter – the first mandatory evacuation in the city’s history. On Friday, residents of nursing homes, hospitals and psychiatric wards in those areas were being transferred to higher ground.
“We don’t have the manpower to go door to door to drag people out of their homes. … Nobody is going to get fined, nobody is going to jail,” Bloomberg said. But if residents didn’t leave, he added, “people might die.”
Some hurricane veterans down South would not be swayed.
The evacuation under way Friday in North Carolina’s Dare County, an area composed largely of the fragile barrier islands of the Outer Banks, did not scare John F. Wilson IV.
While the order sent 150,000 tourists to the highways heading north and west, Wilson went nowhere.
“We’ll get a lot of rain, a lot of flooding, but we’ll be just fine,” he said. He planned to ride out the storm with friends inside the sturdy Roanoke Island Inn, which his family has owned for generations.
Like others who ignored warnings to seek higher ground, Wilson busied himself with pre-storm chores – cleaning gutters, boarding up windows, and stocking up on supplies.
Farther south, near Morehead City, Irene’s outlying rain bands began pounding tiny boarded-up communities with a sustained vigor around 4:30 p.m Friday.