Hurricane Irene kills 10, prompts largest mass evacuation in U.S. history

08/28/2011 09:20

Haaretz:  Hurricane Irene has claimed 10 lives and was closing in on New York on Saturday, as millions of Americans on the east coast heeded orders for the largest mass evacuation in U.S. history.

Five people have died in North Carolina, and three were killed in Virginia due to falling trees, emergency officials said according to a CNN report. In addition, a 55-year-old male surfer died around noon in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, said Capt. Tamara Marris, a spokeswoman for the Volusia County Beach Patrol, the report said.

A Queenstown, Maryland, woman died Saturday after a large tree knocked a chimney through the roof of her home, crushing her, according to Kevin Aftung, the chief of emergency services for Queen Anne's County, CNN reported.

The hurricane has shut down New York City, and millions of Americans on the East Coast hunkered down as the giant storm halted transport and caused massive power blackouts.

Before midnight, Irene, still a menacing 480-mile (780-km)-wide hurricane, was enveloping major population centers in the U.S. northeast with drenching rain and driving winds, threatening dangerous floods and surging tides.

"The edge of the hurricane has finally got upon us," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg told the more than 8 million people who live in the United States' most populous city that includes Wall Street, a major world financial center.

He warned that tropical storm-force winds were expected to start hitting the city.
From the Carolinas to Maine, tens of millions of people were in the path of Irene which howled ashore in North Carolina at daybreak, dumping torrential rain, felling trees and knocking out power.

After moving across North Carolina with less punch than expected but still threatening, the hurricane re-emerged over inshore waters on its route northward, hugging the coast.

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, which connects Virginia's Eastern Shore with the the mainland and is regarded as a modern engineering wonder, was closed because of the winds and rain.

This year has been one of the most extreme for weather in U.S. history, with 35 billion dollars in losses so far from floods, tornadoes and heat waves.

President Barack Obama, who cut his vacation short on the Massachusetts island of Martha's Vineyard to return to the White House, was keeping a close eye on preparations for the hurricane.

New York City's normally bustling streets were eerily quiet after authorities ordered unprecedented major evacuations and shut down its airports and subways.
Commuters were left to flag down yellow taxis and livery cabs that patrolled largely deserted streets.

Irene caused transport chaos as airline, rail and transit systems in New York and other eastern cities started sweeping weekend shutdowns.

The Coast Guard closed the port of Philadelphia, while New York Harbor remained open with some restrictions.

“Dangerous out there”

"We're just stuck here ... "We didn't think they would shut down everything," said Rachel Karten at New York's nearly empty Port Authority Bus Terminal.

Irene left several million people without power in North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and Delaware and New York prepared for possible widespread blackouts.

With winds of 8O miles per hour (130 km per hour), Irene was a Category 1 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson intensity scale.

As it moved into New York, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said it was expected to remain a hurricane and weaken only after making its second landfall in New England.

Irene came ashore near North Carolina's Cape Lookout around 7:30 A.M. EDT (1130 GMT), and then churned up the coast on a north-northeast track. By 11 P.M. (0300 GMT), the center was 70 miles (115 km) south southwest of Ocean City, Maryland, and 255 miles (415 km) south southwest of New York City.

Bloomberg repeatedly told New Yorkers Irene was a life-threatening storm and urged them to stay indoors to avoid flying debris, flooding or the risk of being electrocuted by downed power lines.

"It is dangerous out there," he said, but added later: "New York is the greatest city in the world and we will weather this storm".

Some 370,000 city residents were ordered to leave their homes in low-lying areas, many of them in parts of the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens and in downtown Manhattan.

But many were unwilling to evacuate. Nicholas Vigliotti, 24, an auditor who lives in a high-rise building along the Brooklyn waterfront, said he saw no point. "Even if there was a flood, I live on the fifth floor," he said.

The hurricane center said that Irene's winds could impact more strongly on the higher floors of skyscrapers.

Storm surges fears

The Miami-based hurricane center forecast a storm surge of up to 8 feet (2.5 meters) for Long Island and metropolitan New York when Irene passes on Sunday. That could top the flood walls protecting the south end of Manhattan if it comes at high tide around 8 A.M. (noon GMT)

When Irene hit the North Carolina coast at daybreak, winds howled through the power lines, rain fell in sheets and streets were flooded or littered with signs and tree branches.

Hundreds of thousands of people in Irene's path evacuated their homes, many taking refuge in official shelters.

"Things can be replaced, but life can't be," said Robert Hudson, a 64-year-old military retiree, who sought refuge at a shelter in Milford High School in Delaware.

North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue said there could be "a major hit" to tobacco crops, poultry and livestock in her state.

Summer vacationers fled beach towns and resort islands. More than one million people left the New Jersey shore and glitzy Atlantic City casinos were dark and empty.

Shoppers stripped supermarkets and hardware stores of food, water, flashlights, batteries and generators.

Torrential rain hit downtown Washington but expected high winds had still not reached the city after nightfall and restaurants remained open, some of them almost full.

Irene was the first hurricane to hit the U.S. mainland since Ike pounded Texas in 2008. Emergency workers were mindful of Hurricane Katrina, which swamped New Orleans, killed up to 1,800 people and caused 80 billion dollars in damage in 2005.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the military stood ready to help. In Washington, Irene forced the postponement of a ceremony on Sunday to dedicate a new memorial to civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Tens of thousands of people, including Obama, had been expected to attend.

Irene swept through the Caribbean as a Category 3 hurricane earlier in the week, bringing floods that killed one person in Puerto Rico and at least three in the Dominican Republic.

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