U.S. on high alert as Hurricane Irene closes in

WILMINGTON, N.C.,  (Reuters) – Hurricane Irene closed  in on the U.S. Atlantic coast yesterday, triggering emergency  preparations that included unprecedented evacuations and mass  transit shutdowns in New York City as the menacing storm  approached.

Hurricane Irene destroyed the temporary Straw Market on Bay Street in The Bahamas. See page 4. (Nassau Guardian photo)

As Irene careened north, rain and tropical storm force  winds and ferocious surf began pummeling the North Carolina  coast. “The core of the hurricane will approach the coast of  North Carolina tonight and pass near or over the North Carolina  coast today,” the U.S. National Hurricane Center said in  an advisory last evening.

Beach goers get caught in a squall as feeder bands from Hurricane Irene begin to pound Atlantic Beach, North Carolina yesterday. UTERS/Steve Nesius

Washington and states from the Carolinas through Maine  declared emergencies due to Irene, a nearly 600 mile (960  km)-wide hurricane that put 55 million Americans on the eastern  seaboard on alert and that experts say could cause billions of  dollars in damages.

President Barack Obama said the impact of the storm, an  unusually large storm, could be “extremely dangerous and  costly” for a nation that still remembers destructive Hurricane  Katrina in 2005. “All indications point to this being a  historic hurricane,” Obama said.

Hundreds of thousands of residents and vacationers were  evacuating from Irene’s path.A quarter of a million New Yorkers were ordered to leave  homes in low-lying areas, including the financial district  surrounding Wall Street in Manhattan, as authorities prepared  for dangerous storm surge and flooding tomorrow in the city  and farther east on Long Island.

Some New York hospitals in flood-prone areas were already  evacuating patients, and New York’s mass transit system, which  carries 8.5 million people on weekdays, was due to start  shutting down around noon (1600 GMT) today.

“We’ve never done a mandatory evacuation before and we  wouldn’t be doing it now if we didn’t think this storm had the  potential to be very serious,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg told a  news conference.

As U.S. authorities ramped up preparations to cope with a  potential major natural disaster on the densely populated East  Coast, U.S. airlines canceled more nearly 7,000 flights and  moved airplanes out of Irene’s path.Officials were taking every precaution with Irene because  they remember all too well how Katrina swamped New Orleans,  killing up to 1,800 people and causing $80 billion in damages.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the military stood  ready to aid in the response to Irene, with more than 100,000  National Guard forces available if needed in eastern states. Coastal communities stocked up on food and water and tried  to secure homes, vehicles and boats. Cities, ports, hospitals,  oil refineries and nuclear plants activated emergency plans.

The earliest edges of Irene began to knock down trees,  caused localized flooding and had knocked out power to 7,600  residents of Wilmington, North Carolina by last night.

People huddling in a shelter at a local school said they  feared the storm’s potential impact but were reluctant to  evacuate entirely.
“We were going to go to Charlotte, but we were told we  might not be able to get back if there was a lot of damage,”  said Chastity May, 34, as she watched over her 4-year-old son.

Some were looking to capitalize on the approaching storm.
Greg Bayly, 52, and Scott Olden, 24, were selling  generators out of a rented cargo truck along a busy Wilmington  street that leads out to nearby beaches. Bayly said the pair  could process credit cards to complete purchases, despite the  rapidly deteriorating weather conditions.

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