Irene slams US, East Coast braces for rare hit by hurricane

Hundreds of thousands of Americans are without electricity as hurricane Irene hits North Carolina and moves towards the more populated areas of New Jersey and New York.
A boat founders in the waters of the Chesapeake Bay.
A boat founders in the waters of the Chesapeake Bay.

WASHINGTON // Two people were killed and millions of Americans up and down the East Coast prepared themselves yesterday as Hurricane Irene crashed ashore in North Carolina and took a steady course towards New York and nearby states.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans were without electricity, a number that might dramatically increase as Irene moved towards the more populated areas of New Jersey and New York.

More than two million people along the East Coast have been warned or ordered to evacuate their homes to get out of the way of a hurricane that could cause billions of dollars in damage. Amtrak cancelled all train services in the northeastern corridor and some 8,300 flights were cancelled this weekend.

The closure of JFK Airport in New York will affected at least eight flights to or from the UAE, according to Emirates and Etihad airlines. Emirates canceled six flights to or from New York, and Etihad Airways cancelled two.

Ten states - Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Maine - have declared states of emergency in addition to Washington, DC, which, however, is expected to avoid the worst of the winds.

Irene made landfall at Cape Lookout, North Carolina, at around 8 in the morning yesterday. Overnight, the hurricane had been downgraded from category two to one, the lowest intensity category hurricane, but Irene still hit the coast with sustained winds of about 135kph.

And even though Irene was downgraded, at 690km wide and moving slowly, meteorologists were still warning of extensive damage, as the massive storm batters a huge swathe of land.

Two storm-related deaths had already been reported by midday yesterday. One man suffered a heart attack while securing the windows of his home with plywood, while another was struck by a branch of a tree, blown down by the storm. Both were in North Carolina.

By midmorning, some 60,000 residents of Wilmington, North Carolina, found themselves without power as the hurricane tore down trees that tore down power lines. By midday more than 200,000 people were without power in North Carolina.

Millions could suffer similar power cuts as the hurricane moves north and residents of Washington, with its notoriously unreliable electricity supply, had been preparing all week for that possibility. Shops across the District had sold out of flashlights and batteries, while there was a run on food and water at packed grocery stores on Thursday and Friday.

At Bredice Brothers Hardware, a small store in the Georgetown area, Lee Byung, 62, the owner, saw a two-fold increase in customers over the past few days. Batteries and flashlights had long been sold out and Mr Lee described customers as looking "scared".

Emergency services were working overtime, and owners were busy boarding up shop windows. Hospitals were also bracing themselves for disruptions. Georgetown University Hospital had prepared for days to ensure that employees could find safe routes to work, and that the hospital would be stocked up on food and fuel for emergency generators, according to Marianne Worley, a hospital spokesperson.

Much more serious preparations were underway in New York. Five hospitals and 15 nursing homes were evacuated on Friday and 375,000 New Yorkers have been asked to leave their homes.

The New York metro closed at noon yesterday - the first time the subway system has been closed because of weather - and flights in and out the city's airports were cancelled. The city opened 91 shelters with blankets, water and food for evacuees, and Michael Bloomberg, the mayor, strongly urged residents not to take warnings lightly.

"Staying behind is dangerous. Staying behind is foolish and against the law … the time to leave is right now," Mr Bloomberg said at a press conference yesterday. "We can't prepare for the best case scenario, we have to prepare for the worst."

The unprecedented level of precautionary evacuations in New York and elsewhere bear the hallmarks of a post-Katrina era where authorities are extremely wary of being caught unprepared.

Hurricane Katrina, which devastated large areas of the south in 2005, notably New Orleans, was a category-five hurricane, with wind speeds in excess of 280kph. Katrina left more than 1,800 people dead and caused more than US$100 billion (Dh367bn) in damages, and the emergency response, especially by federal authorities, was widely criticised as inadequate.

 

News channels have switched to 24-hour coverage of a storm that is being repeatedly referred to as a "monster". FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and local state and city emergency authorities have all been highly visible, warning people to stay prepared and publishing hourly storm updates.

Barack Obama, the US president, has also warned Americans to be vigilant. He cut his holiday short on Friday to return to the White House, and visited FEMA headquarters in Washington yesterday.

He praised staff for their efforts to prepare Americans for what he had earlier called an "historic" storm.

"This is obviously going to be touch and go," he told FEMA employees yesterday.

 

okarmi@thenational.ae

Published: August 28, 2011 04:00 AM

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