Obama warns of ‘historic’ event as US battens down hatches
The first large rain bands from Hurricane Irene hit the Carolina coast this afternoon, as President Barack Obama warned of a natural event of ‘’historic proportions’’.
Residents in Carolina scurried from its path and communities up and down the densely populated East Coast watched and waited for the storm's potentially devastating effects.
And there were warnings of widespread and prolonged power outages, flash flooding and storm surges that could flood low-lying communities and possibly inundate New York City's subway system.
President Obama was speaking from his vacation in Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, itself in the path of the storm.
North Carolina authorities reported evacuations were going smoothly, but not everyone was choosing to leave.
Earlier New York Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency. The move allows him to give state resources to cities preparing for the hurricane’s impact.
“I urge New Yorkers to personally prepare for hurricane conditions and to cooperate with emergency officials if needed,” said Mr Cuomo. “By working together, we will all be able to face this storm in a calm and organised manner.”
States of emergency were also declare in North Carolina, Virginia and New Jersey.
In New Jersey’s Cape May County, as many as 750,000 people were last night told to evacuate.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered the evacuation of hospitals and other vulnerable institutions in the most low-lying areas of New York City, as New York state declared a state of emergency.
Projections suggested that Irene would become the first hurricane to directly strike the US mainland since 2008, when Ike killed more than 50 people and caused about $30 billion (£18 billion) in damage.
"The eastern seaboard is well within the path of this storm," the director of the US National Hurricane Centre, Bill Read, said on Thursday. "We can see impacts well inland". The category-three storm, rated as strong as 2005's Katrina, has battered parts of the Bahamas and left three dead in Haiti and Puerto Rico.
Lovely Bay, on the remote Bahamian Acklins island, was practically destroyed by winds of over 110 miles per hour, while dozens of homes were flattened on other islands, authorities said. A foot of rain was expected to be dumped on the island in all, accompanied by "large and dangerous waves".
Mandatory evacuation orders were issued to about 200,000 people in the coastal counties of Dare and Hyde in North Carolina. Residents in Dare were told to arrive at special shelters by 8am this morning, while tourists were asked to leave the area as soon as possible. Impact is expected on Saturday.
"Irene could be a once-in-50-year hurricane for the north-east," said Kristina Pydynowski, a meteorologist for Accuweather, who predicted "widespread tree damage, power outages and structural damage". She wrote: "Glass windows could shatter along the sides of New York City skyscrapers." The hurricane was expected to intensify into a category-four storm as it passed Florida this afternoon, before gradually weakening as it swept up the east coast.
Mayor Bloomberg predicted "tropical storm-like conditions such as heavy rains and winds of 60 miles per hour or more" for New York. Flood warnings were issued for areas including the financial district.
The mayor, who was heavily criticised for his slow response to blizzards that paralysed the city for days after last Christmas, said: "We hope for the best but we prepare for the worst". New York tabloids combined huge satellite photographs of Irene on their front pages with doom-laden headlines.
Residents of Washington DC were warned they too could be struck if there were "any further deviation" leftward to Irene's path. Craig Fugate, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, briefed President Barack Obama on the situation. "We could expect tropical force winds or worse in the DC area," Mr Fugate said.
Mr Read predicted that "flooding and power outages and damage caused by trees is going to be a big story as the storm moves inland over the northeast". Survival experts were last night drafted into US television studios to advise viewers. "Don't expect the government to take care of you," one told CNN.
Boats and helicopters were being prepared by city authorities for potential rescue missions.
Days after New York experienced its worst earthquake in decades, Mr Bloomberg said: "The city has already seen the power of Mother Nature once this week, and Mother Nature may not be done with us yet."