US prepares for Hurricane Irene, expected to hit New York City

Residents in low-lying areas along the east coast have been urged to head for higher ground as the deadly storm churns toward the mainland.

NORTH CAROLINA // Millions of people on the US east coast prepared Friday for the arrival of Hurricane Irene, a massive storm authorities fear will cause widespread flooding and power outages across the populous region.

Officials from North Carolina to New York declared states of emergency and tens of thousands of people were ordered to higher ground as Irene, a category two hurricane on the five-level Saffir-Simpson scale, raced toward the US mainland.

Irene is forecast to make landfall on Saturday at North Carolina and score a direct hit on New York City on Sunday with winds of up to 153 kilometers (93 miles) an hour.

Irene earlier tore through the Bahamas, a small country of 29 islands and hundreds of cays southeast of Florida, destroying home and uprooting trees. While there are no known casualties, local officials warned that assessments from the outlying regions were still coming in.

Earlier however the storm killed people in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.

US state and federal authorities have been busy warning the 65 million people living in the path of the storm that they should expect heavy rain, flooding and possible power outages.

"There's hardly any excuse for people not to know that there's a hurricane out there," said Craig Fugate, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, on Thursday. "People need to understand that their time will be running out to be prepared and be ready."

At 0900 GMT Friday the center of Irene was located off the Atlantic coast of Florida about 675 kilometers (420 miles) southwest of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, the Miami-based National Hurricane Center reported.

Irene had weakened slightly, with winds of 175 kilometers (110 miles) per hour, though forecasters expected it would regain strength over the next 24 hours. The storm was moving towards the north at 22 kilometers (14 miles) per hour.

Irene will be accompanied by an "extremely dangerous" storm surge that could raise water levels by as much as 11 feet (3.4 meters), the NHC said. In New York, officials fear this will cause widespread flooding, including damage to the subway system.

The northeastern United States rarely gets hit by a hurricane: Gloria in 1985 was the last major hurricane to hit the New York area.

President Barack Obama declared an emergency in North Carolina and federal authorities said they had stored meals and bottled water for people in shelters.

The US military said that up to 98,000 National Guard soldiers were available if needed. Separately, ships with the navy's Second Fleet sailed out of its home port at Hampton Roads, Virginia, to ride out the storm at a safe distance.

Authorities in North Carolina's coastal Dare County - where up to 180,000 people are believed to be present -- warned that emergency personnel would not be able to reach anyone who ignored the mandatory evacuation by Friday morning.

"If you choose to stay, we can't issue a criminal citation, but you are leaving yourself wide open to extreme conditions," county official Kelly Davis said.

The hurricane delayed the long-awaited dedication of a memorial on Washington's National Mall to civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., which was set to open Sunday on the 48th anniversary of his "I Have a Dream" speech.

The 28-foot (nine-meter) tall granite likeness of King, designed by Chinese artist Lei Yixin, will now be formally dedicated in September or October.

In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg warned residents to prepare to move to higher ground.

"If you have a car and live in a low-lying area, park it on a hill," Bloomberg told a press conference. "Move stuff upstairs."

Bloomberg authorized the evacuation of hospitals and other vulnerable institutions in the most low-lying areas of New York City, while neighboring New Jersey ordered 750,000 people out of the remote Cape May area.

Irene smashed through the Caribbean and then on Wednesday hit the Bahamas, where homes were destroyed, roads were flooded and power was cut off.

Haiti, while not directly under Irene's eye, suffered from heavy rains dumped by the hurricane. Civil defense authorities said two people died when they were swept away by raging waters in a ravine.

Another 1,000 people were displaced by flooding caused by Irene, officials said, leading to fears of a new outbreak of cholera. The water-borne disease killed some 5,000 people in Haiti in the wake of last year's major earthquake.

The Dominican Republic reported two deaths including that of an 18-year-old pregnant woman washed away in a river.

One person was killed in Puerto Rico, where the storm became a hurricane on Monday. Puerto Rican authorities estimated damage at more than $500 million.

Published: August 26, 2011 04:00 AM

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