Forecasters issued watches and warnings for the US East Coast in advance of Hurricane Irene, a monstrous storm that could bring large amounts of rain and a storm surge to North Carolina and other states as it tracks north.
A hurricane warning was issued for coastal North Carolina from Little River Inlet north to the Virginia border, including the Pamlico, Albemarle and Currituck sounds, the National Hurricane Center said in its 5 p.m. ET advisory.
Irene, moving north-northwest at 14 mph, was expected to turn northward from the Bahamas early Friday. In anticipation, Amtrak and major U.S. airlines began canceling routes and flights or putting them on a watch list. American Airlines canceled 126 flights Thursday, mostly out of Miami and the Bahamas, an airline spokesman said.
“Everybody should take this very seriously,” said North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue, who declared a state of emergency in counties east of Interstate 95. “Everyone is telling us this is a big deal for North Carolina.”
Initial landfall was expected Saturday in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, but Irene could have other areas in its sights as it skirts the East Coast all the way to New England.
“Extremely dangerous storm surge will raise water levels by as much as 2 to almost 4 metres above ground level within the hurricane warning area, including the Albemarle and Pamlico sounds,” the center said. “The surge will be accompanied by large, destructive and life-threatening waves.”
A hurricane warning is issued 36 hours in advance of tropical storm-force winds. A hurricane has sustained winds of 120km/h or higher.
A hurricane watch was issued from the Virginia-North Carolina border north to Sandy Hook, New Jersey, including Delaware Bay and the Chesapeake Bay south of Smith Point. “Significant” storm surge flooding was possible within the watch area. Hurricane watches, issued 48 hours in advance of tropical storm-force winds, indicate hurricane conditions are possible.
A tropical storm warning, which indicates sustained winds of 62 to 120km/h are possible in the next 36 hours, was in effect for the coast of South Carolina from Edisto Beach northward to Little River Inlet.
Although the possibility of Irene growing to Category 4 was no longer in the Hurricane Center’s forecast report, CNN meteorologists Sean Morris and Chad Myers said it is still a possibility.
Five other governors declared states of emergency as Irene threatened to wreak havoc along the United States’ Eastern Seaboard, including portions of New England.
Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley declared emergencies for their states. The emergency declarations allow states to free funds and prepare resources that may be needed.
“We hope that the storm doesn’t hit, but we have to do everything in our power to be prepared,” said Malloy, who expects Irene to be a Category 1 hurricane when it reaches the region.
If Irene continues along its current track, “from a flooding perspective, this could be a hundred-year event,” Christie said. He encouraged voluntary evacuations to begin immediately. “Anybody who is on a barrier island should go,” he said.
Christie said it was too soon to know whether there will be mandatory evacuations.
In parts of coastal North Carolina, mandatory evacuations were under way Thursday.
The military moved more than two dozen ships out to sea ahead of the storm.
As of 5 p.m. ET, the Category 3 storm was pounding the northern Bahamas, with its eye over Abaco Island, the National Hurricane Center said.
Cat, San Salvador and Long islands “took direct hits,” said Gayle Outten-Moncur of Bahamas’ National Emergency Management Agency. “There has been bad flooding in some areas.”
By Thursday afternoon, no deaths or injuries had been reported in the island chain. Officials reported widespread power outages, impassable roads, downed trees and flooding in some spots. Still, they expected tourists to return by the weekend.
Maximum sustained winds were at almost 200km/h as the storm worked its way northwest.
In the United States, many people were quick to move out of the storm’s path.
“I didn’t really want to take my chances,” said Janeen Wall, who left her vacation spot in Carolina Beach, North Carolina, to make it back to Richmond, Virginia. “Also, if I waited for an evacuation order, I would have to share the road with more than a few thousand other folks trying to leave at the same time.”
A mandatory evacuation order was in effect for residents and visitors in Hyde County, North Carolina, which includes Ocracoke Island, reachable only by boat or private plane, on the Outer Banks.
Ocracoke resident Farris O’Neal, 40, told CNN that for the first time he may head for the mainland instead of sticking out the storm. “It’s different this time,” he said. Since the last big storm, he has gotten married and had two children. “My wife is sick, and so’s the baby.”
Nearby Dare County, which includes Manteo, Nags Head, Duck and historic Kitty Hawk, had an evacuation order for tourists only. Carteret County also issued a mandatory evacuation order for visitors in part of the county. On Friday, there will be a mandatory evacuation for all residents of Bogue Banks, said county spokesman Rodney Cates.
Ocean City, Maryland, Mayor Richard Meehan announced a mandatory evacuation beginning at midnight, CNN affiliate WUSA reported.
Sunday’s dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial in Washington remains on schedule, officials said after studying the track of Irene. But they will make another assessment Friday.
The cone of uncertainty — the area that could be affected by Irene depending on what path it follows over the next several days — includes much of the Northeast. Even if the hurricane does not make landfall, heavy rain could trigger flooding.
“The biggest concern is getting people to pay attention and make sure they are ready,” Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate said in an interview with CNN. Residents should have the necessary supplies and an evacuation plan ready, he said.
The storm could weaken as it works its way up the U.S. East Coast in the coming days. “As it gets closer to the Northeast, it will run into the cooler Labrador Current, and that — along with some more wind shear — should allow Irene to lose some strength,” said HLN meteorologist Bob Van Dillen.
The U.S. Navy is sending 27 ships based in Norfolk, Virginia, out to sea to ride out Irene, a senior Navy official told CNN. An aircraft carrier is among them. Another 28 ships will seek more sheltered areas. Three submarines were heading out to sea as well.
CNN’s Larry Shaughnessy, on board the USS Wasp, could see several warships ahead and others behind as they steadily worked their way out into the Atlantic. There are 1,500 personnel on board the Wasp — 1,000 sailors and 500 Marines. Things were orderly on the ship, Shaughnessy said.
While Florida is not expected to get the worst of Irene, the state was feeling the storm’s effects Thursday, said CNN meteorologist Jacqui Jeras.
“Rough surf, rip currents and erosion on Atlantic beaches, and wind advisories with gusts to 40 mph expected,” Jeras tweeted.
South Carolina state officials have decided not to order evacuations but urged boaters and swimmers to stay out of the water.
Storm preparations were less intense along the Virginia coastline and the Eastern Shores of Maryland — the area swamped by Hurricane Isabel in 2003.
One resident was hopeful that Irene would pass close by.
“Dear Irene, please bring rain. Thank you,” read a handwritten sign on a mailbox in the Hampton Roads, Virginia, region, where residents are being affected by smoke from a stubborn wildfire that has been burning in the Dismal Swamp.
“Hurricane Irene may be the only way to get enough rainfall to assist the firefighters and put this relentless fire out,” said Penelope Penn.
The last major hurricane to strike the United States was Wilma in 2005, which was a Category 3 at landfall in southwest Florida, Jeras said.
CNN’s Josh Levs, Ed Payne, Melanie Whitley, Phil Gast, Catherine E. Schoichet, Paul Courson, Barbara Starr and John Fricke contributed to this report.
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