About 65 million people along the densely populated US east coast waited warily yesterday for a dangerous hurricane that could inflict billions in damages in an arc from Washington to Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston.
The main thrust of Hurricane Irene wasn’t expected in North Carolina until sometime today, but surging storm waves were already hitting the state’s Outer Banks, where thousands of tourists and locals have fled.
Irene weakened slightly yesterday, dropping to a Category 2 storm with maximum sustained winds near 175kph. However, some re-strengthening was possible and the storm was expected to be between a Category 2 and 3 storm as it reached North Carolina’s coast, the National Hurricane Center said.
The powerful hurricane destroyed hundreds of homes on small Bahamian islands but largely spared the capital of Nassau as it tore over the sprawling archipelago on Thursday. There were no immediate reports of deaths.
The US hurricane warning area was expanded to cover the coast from North Carolina north to Sandy Hook, New Jersey, which is just south of New York city. A hurricane watch extended even farther north and included Long Island, and the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket in Massachusetts.
Knowing such a storm is on the way, farmer Wilson Daughtry shrugged off an evacuation order and raced to harvest all the corn and squash he could in North Carolina. Hundreds of miles further north in Maine, lobsterman Greg Griffin said fishermen were stowing traps and tying up boats, heeding forecasts of 9m battering waves ahead.
Besides major cities, sprawling suburban bedroom communities, ports, airports, highway networks, cropland and mile after mile of beachfront neighborhoods are in harm’s way.
“One of my greatest nightmares was having a major hurricane go up the whole Northeast coast,’” Max Mayfield, the National Hurricane Center’s retired director, said. “This is going to be a real challenge ... There’s going to be millions of people affected.”
Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers were told on Thursday to be prepared to move.
Farther south, tens of thousands packed up and left North Carolina beach towns and farmers pulled up their crops.
Risks are many from Irene’s wrath: surging seas, drenching rains, flash floods and high winds are all possibilities that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) wasn’t counting out.
Even if the winds aren’t strong enough to damage buildings in a metropolis made of brick, concrete and steel, much of New York’s subway system and other infrastructure is underground and subject to flooding. New York City’s two main airports also are close to the water and could also be inundated.