NAGS HEAD, N.C.
Weaker but still menacing, Hurricane Irene knocked out power and piers in North Carolina, clobbered Virginia with wind, and churned up the coast Saturday to confront cities more accustomed to snowstorms than tropical storms. New York City emptied its streets and subways and waited with an eerie quiet.
By Saturday night, the massive storm was pushing back out to sea and continuing north at about 16 mph. Laurie Hogan, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service's operations on New York's Long Island, said the storm was expected to hit there a little after 8 this morning, 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. Flooding is a particular concern, she added, because the ground in New Jersey, for example, is already saturated from heavy rains over the last month.
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With most of its transportation machinery shut down, the Eastern Seaboard spent the day nervously watching the storm's march across a swath of the nation inhabited by 65 million people. The hurricane had an enormous wingspan — 500 miles, its outer reaches stretching from the Carolinas to Cape Cod — and packed wind gusts of 115 mph.
Almost 2 million homes and businesses were without power. While it was too early to assess the full threat, Irene was blamed for at least six deaths.
The hurricane stirred up 7-foot waves, and forecasters warned of storm-surge danger on the coasts of Virginia and Delaware, along the Jersey Shore and in New York Harbor and Long Island Sound.
Irene made its official landfall as a Category 1 hurricane 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.
North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue said that Irene inflicted significant damage along her state's coast, but that some areas were unreachable because of high water or downed power lines. "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.
Saturday evening, Irene was lashing the Hampton Roads region along the coast of Virginia with 80 mph winds. The storm was moving north-northeast still on a path to New England today. Hurricane warnings extend north to Nantucket, Mass. A tropical storm warning extended all the way to the south coast of Nova Scotia, Canada.
It 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. Experts guessed that no other hurricane in American history had threatened as many people.
At least 2.3 million were under orders to move to somewhere safer, although it was unclear how many obeyed or, in some cases, how they could.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told 6,500 troops from all branches of the military to get ready to pitch in on relief work, and President Barack Obama visited the Federal Emergency Management Agency's command center in Washington and offered moral support.
"It's going to be a long 72 hours," he said, "and obviously a lot of families are going to be affected."
In New York, authorities began the herculean job of bringing the city to a halt. The subway began shutting down at noon, the first time the system was closed because of a natural disaster. It was expected to take eight hours for all trains to complete their runs and be taken out of service.
Airlines said 9,000 flights were canceled, including 3,000 on Saturday. Airlines declined to say how many passengers would be affected, but it could easily be millions because so many flights make connections on the East Coast. There were more than 10,000 cancellations during the blizzard last winter.
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 landfall. 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."
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett warned that his 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."
Information from the New York Times was used in this report.