8:30 p.m.

MIAMI – Forecasters say Hurricane Irene off the coast of North Carolina is still packing 100 mph winds and turning toward the north-northeast.

Tropical storm conditions are spreading all over southeastern North Carolina tonight. The storm’s main thrust is supposed to hit the Carolina coast early Saturday.

The National Hurricane Center is saying its biggest concern is storm surge of 6 to 11 feet along the coast of North Carolina. That is possible at Ablemarle and Pamlico Sounds.

A sustained wind of 50 mph was measured at Wrightsville Beach, N.C., along the coast.
 

7 p.m.: 2 million ordered to leave as Irene takes aim

MOREHEAD CITY, N.C. — Whipping up trouble before ever reaching land, Hurricane Irene zeroed in today for a catastrophic run up the Eastern Seaboard. More than 2 million people were told to move to safer places, and New York City ordered its entire network of subways shut down for the first time because of a natural disaster.

As the storm’s outermost bands of wind and rain began to lash the Outer Banks of North Carolina, authorities in points farther north begged people to get out of harm’s way. The hurricane lost some strength but still packed winds of almost 100 mph, and officials in the Northeast, not used to tropical weather, feared it could wreak devastation.

“Don’t wait. Don’t delay,” said President Obama, who decided to cut short his summer vacation by a day and return to Washington. “I cannot stress this highly enough: If you are in the projected path of this hurricane, you have to take precautions now.”

Hurricane warnings were issued from North Carolina to New York, and watches were posted farther north, on the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard off Massachusetts. Evacuation orders covered at least 2.3 million people, including 1 million in New Jersey, 315,000 in Maryland, 300,000 in North Carolina, 200,000 in Virginia and 100,000 in Delaware.

“This is probably the largest number of people that have been threatened by a single hurricane in the United States,” said Jay Baker, a geography professor at Florida State University.

New York City ordered more than 300,000 people who live in flood-prone areas to leave, including Battery Park City at the southern tip of Manhattan, Coney Island and the beachfront Rockaways. But it was not clear how many would do it, how they would get out or where they would go. Most New Yorkers don’t have a car.

On top of that, the city said it would shut down the subways and buses at noon Saturday, only a few hours after the first rain is expected to fall. The transit system carries about 5 million people on an average weekday, fewer on weekends. It has been shut down several times before, including during a transit workers’ strike in 2005 and after the Sept. 11 attacks a decade ago, but never for weather.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg said there was little authorities could do to force people to leave.

“We do not have the manpower to go door-to-door and drag people out of their homes,” he said. “Nobody’s going to get fined. Nobody’s going to go to jail. But if you don’t follow this, people may die.”

Shelters were opening this afternoon, and the city was placed under its first hurricane warning since 1985.

Transit systems in New Jersey and Philadelphia also announced plans to shut down, and Washington declared a state of emergency. Boisterous New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie demanded people “get the hell off the beach” in Asbury Park and said: “You’re done. Do not waste any more time working on your tan.”

Hundreds of thousands of airline passengers were grounded for the weekend. JetBlue Airways said it was scrubbing about 880 flights between Saturday and Monday, most to and from hub airports in New York and Boston. Other airlines said they were waiting to be more certain about Irene’s path before announcing more cancellations.

Thousands of people were already without power. In Charleston, S.C., several people had to be rescued after a tree fell on their car.

Defying the orders, hardy holdouts in North Carolina put plywood on windows, gathered last-minute supplies and tied down boats. More than half the people who live on two remote islands, Hatteras and Ocracoke, had ignored orders to leave, and as time to change their minds ran short, officials ordered dozens of body bags. The last ferry from Ocracoke was set to leave at 4 p.m. today.

“I anticipate we’re going to have people floating on the streets, and I don’t want to leave them lying there,” said Richard Marlin, fire chief for one of the seven villages on Hatteras. “The Coast Guard will either be pulling people off their roofs like in Katrina or we’ll be scraping them out of their yards.”

Officially, Irene was expected to make landfall Saturday near Morehead City, on the southern end of the Outer Banks, the barrier island chain. But long before the eye crossed the coastline, the blustery winds and intermittent rains were already raking the coast.

National Hurricane Center meteorologist David Zelinsky said earlier today that he expected the storm to arrive as a Category 2 or 3 hurricane. Later in the day, other forecasts showed it would strike most of the coast as a Category 1. The scale runs from 1, barely stronger than a tropical storm, to a monstrous 5. This afternoon, Irene was a Category 2.

Regardless of how fierce the storm is when it makes landfall, the coast of North Carolina was expected to get winds of more than 100 mph and waves perhaps as high as 11 feet, Zelinsky said.

“This is a really large hurricane and it is dangerous,” he said. “Whether it is a Category 2 or 3 at landfall, the effects are still going to be strong. I would encourage people to take it seriously.”

Officer Edward Mann was driving down the narrow streets of Nags Head looking for cars in driveways, a telltale sign of people planning to ride out the storm against all advice.

Bucky Domanski, 71, was working in his garage when Mann walked in. He told the officer he planned to stay. Mann handed Domanski a piece of paper with details about the county’s evacuation order. It warned that hurricane force winds would flood the roads and there might not be power or water until well after the storm.

“You understand we can’t help you during the storm,” Mann said.

“I understand,” Domanski replied.

After the Outer Banks, the next target for Irene was the Hampton Roads region of southeast Virginia, a jagged network of inlets and rivers that floods easily. Emergency officials have said the region is more threatened by storm surge, the high waves that accompany a storm, than wind. Gas stations there were low on fuel today, and grocery stores scrambled to keep water and bread on the shelves.

In Delaware, Gov. Jack Markell ordered an evacuation of coastal areas.

“We could be open tonight for business, but there’s a very fine line between doing the right thing and putting our staff at risk,” said Alex Heidenberger, owner of Mango Mike’s restaurant in Bethany Beach, who expects to lose $40,000 to $50,000 in business. “It’s not so much we’re worried about the storm coming tonight, but we want to give them a chance to get out of town and get their affairs in order.”

Officials at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington said they were speeding the transfer of their last remaining patients to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. The transfer had been planned for Sunday.

In Baltimore’s Fells Point neighborhood, one of the city’s oldest waterfront neighborhoods, people filled sandbags and placed them at the entrances to buildings. A few miles away at the Port of Baltimore, vehicles and cranes continued to unload huge cargo ships that were rushing to offload and get away from the storm.

In New York, the Mets postponed games scheduled for Saturday and Sunday with the visiting Atlanta Braves, and the Jets and Giants moved their preseason NFL game up to 2 p.m. Saturday from 7 p.m.

And in Atlantic City, N.J., all 11 casinos announced plans to shut down today, only the third time that has happened in the 33-year history of legalized gambling in that state.

“I like gambling, but you don’t play with this,” Pearson Callender said as he waited for a Greyhound bus out of town. “People are saying this is an act of God. I just need to get home to be with my family.”

 

4:23 p.m.: Irene brings rain, heavy seas to coast

By Mitch Weiss, The Associated Press

NAGS HEAD, N.C. — Hurricane Irene began lashing the East Coast with fierce winds and rain today, with the storm almost certain to heap punishment on a vast and densely populated stretch of shoreline from the Carolinas to Maine this weekend.

Rain and tropical storm-force winds of at least 39 mph (63 kph) already were pelting the Carolinas as Irene trudged north, snapping power lines and flooding streets. Officials warned of dangerous rip currents as Irene roiled the surf. Thousands already were without power. In Charleston, S.C., several people had to be rescued after a tree fell on their car, trapping them.

For hundreds of miles, people in the storm’s path either fled inland or stocked up on supplies to ride it out. Irene had the potential to cause billions of dollars in damage and affect some 65 million people in cities including Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and beyond.

Officials along the entire Eastern Seaboard declared emergencies, shut down public transit systems and begged residents to obey evacuation orders ahead of the storm, which federal officials said is likely to affect more people than many others before it.

President Barack Obama said all indications point to the storm being historic.

“I cannot stress this highly enough. If you are in the projected path of this hurricane, you have to take precautions now,” said Obama, who was wrapping up his Martha’s Vineyard vacation a day early and heading back to the White House today.

Irene’s wrath in the Caribbean, including Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas, gave a preview of what is expected in the U.S.: Power outages, dangerous floods and high winds that caused millions of dollars in damage.

Hurricane warnings remained in effect from North Carolina to New Jersey. Hurricane watches were in effect even farther north and included Long Island, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, Mass.

In addition to widespread wind and water damage, Irene could also push crude oil prices higher if it disrupts refineries in Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia, which produce nearly 8 percent of U.S. gasoline and diesel fuel.

By this afternoon, Irene had weakened slightly but remained a Category 2 storm with maximum sustained winds near 100 mph (161 kph). Little change in strength was expected by the time Irene reaches North Carolina on Saturday, but forecasters at the National Hurricane Center warned it would be a large and dangerous storm nonetheless.

In North Carolina, traffic was steady today as people fled the Outer Banks and beach towns. A day earlier, tourists were ordered to leave the barrier islands, though local officials estimated today that about half the residents on two of the islands have ignored evacuation orders.

In Nags Head, police officer Edward Mann cruised the streets in search of cars in driveways — a telltale sign they planned to stay behind. He warned those that authorities wouldn’t be able to help holdouts in hurricane-force winds, and that electricity and water could be out for days.

Some tell Mann they’re staying because they feel safe or because the storm won’t be as bad as predicted. Mann, 25, said some have told him they’ve ridden out more storms than years he’s been alive.

Bucky Domanski, 71, was among those who told Mann he wasn’t leaving. The officer handed the retired salesman a piece of paper warning of the perils of staying behind. Domanski said he understood.

“I could be wrong, but everything meteorologists have predicted never pans out,” Domanski said. “I don’t know, maybe I’ve been lulled to sleep. But my gut tells me it’s not going to be as bad as predicted. I hope I’m right.”

Speaking today on CBS’ “The Early Show,” North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue said state troopers, the Red Cross and the National Guard were in place to deal with the storm’s aftermath, which she said could affect some 3.5 million people.

North Carolina was just first in line along the Eastern Seaboard — home to some of the nation’s priciest real estate.

Besides major cities, sprawling suburbs, ports, airports, highways, cropland and mile after mile of built-up beachfront neighborhoods are in harm’s way. In several spots along the coast, hospitals and nursing homes worked to move patients and residents away from what could be the strongest hurricane to hit the East Coast in seven years.

The center of the storm was still about 300 miles (483 kilometers) south-southwest of Cape Hatteras, N.C., and moving to the north at 14 mph (22 kph).

The latest forecasts showed Irene crashing into the North Carolina coastline Saturday, then churning up the Eastern Seaboard and drenching areas from Virginia to New York City before a weakened storm reaches New England.

In Washington, Irene dashed hopes of dedicating a 30-foot sculpture to Martin Luther King Jr. on Sunday on the National Mall. While a direct strike on the nation’s capital appeared slim, organizers said forecasts of wind and heavy rain made it too dangerous to summon a throng they expected to number up to 250,000.

In the Sandbridge section of Virginia Beach, Va., rental companies raced to evacuate guests and board up rental homes.

John Landbeck of Aberdeen, Md. spent this morning packing up the vacation home he was renting and pulling his fishing boat out of the water. He planned to ride out the storm at a hotel in Chesapeake and return to his rental for another two weeks once the storm passed. He said he’d stay out of harm’s way but was taking things in stride.

“Hopefully we won’t have any earthquakes, no more hurricanes, no more floods. But It’s been fun. For me, life is an adventure. Whatever comes, we take it,” he said.

More than a quarter-million New Yorkers were ordered to evacuate the city’s low-lying coastal areas today, and officials said the city’s transit system would shut down around noon Saturday. A hurricane warning has not been issued for the nation’s biggest city since Hurricane Gloria hit in 1985 as a Category 2 storm, said Ashley Sears, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

Even if the winds aren’t strong enough to damage buildings in a metropolis made largely of brick, concrete and steel, a lot of New York’s subways and other infrastructure are underground, making them subject to flooding.

Philadelphia officials also planned to shut down the city’s transit system early Sunday morning.

New York’s two airports are close to the water and could be inundated, as could densely packed neighborhoods, if the storm pushes ocean water into the city’s waterways.

In the last 200 years, New York has seen only a few significant hurricanes, and New England is unaccustomed to direct hits. In 1938, a storm dubbed the Long Island Express came ashore about 75 miles east of the city and then hit New England, killing 700 people and leaving 63,000 homeless.

Across the Northeast, Irene threatened to flood many miles of land that are already saturated from heavy rain. Parts of Rhode Island are still recovering from devastating 2010 spring floods.