The Virginian-Pilot, Amanda Lucier, Associated Press
NAGS HEAD, N.C. — Farmer Wilson Daughtry shrugged off an evacuation order and raced to harvest all the corn and squash he could hours before the initial waves churned up by Hurricane Irene started bumping the outer islands of North Carolina. Far away in Maine, lobsterman Greg Griffin reported his colleagues were stowing traps and tying up boats, heeding forecasts of 30-foot battering waves to come.
For hundreds of miles, as many as 65 million people along the densely populated East Coast warily waited Friday for a dangerous hurricane that has the potential to inflict billions of dollars in damages anywhere within that urban sprawl that arcs from Washington and Baltimore through Philadelphia, New York, Boston and beyond.
The main thrust of Irene wasn't expected in North Carolina until sometime Saturday. But heightened waves from the enormous Category 3 storm weren't waiting, already hitting the Outer Banks early Friday where many tourists and regular islanders had packed up and left, the National Weather Service said.
Buxton, N.C. real estate agent Danny Couch owns a bus tour business on Hatteras Island and worries about Irene's damage potential in unexpected ways. Not the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse or other icons of the Outer Banks, but N.C. Highway 12, the two-lane road that runs up and down the vulnerable barrier island.
That's a lifeline for the community, along with the aged Bonner Bridge, the only connection to the mainland other than two ferries.
"It always the road," he said when asked what he will check when Irene passes. "That's your way in, that's your way out."
North Carolina was just first in line along the Eastern Seaboard — home to some of the nation's most heavily populated areas and some of its priciest real estate. Besides major cities, sprawling suburban bedroom communities, ports, airports, highway networks, cropland and mile after mile of built-up beachfront neighborhoods are in harm's way.
"One of my greatest nightmares was having a major hurricane go up the whole Northeast coast," Max Mayfield, the National Hurricane Center's retired director, told The Associated Press on Thursday as the storm lurched toward the U.S. "This is going to be a real challenge ... There's going to be millions of people affected."
The enormous Category 3 storm with winds of 115 mph (185 kph) — the threshold for a major hurricane — would be the strongest to strike the East Coast in seven years, and people were already getting out of the way. After dousing the Bahamas, it was again moving over warm Atlantic waters that will energize it.
The center of the storm was still about 460 miles (740 kilometers) south-southwest of Cape Hatteras and moving to the north at 14 mph (22 kph).
Hurricane watches already extend all the way to New Jersey and New York was likely next.
Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers were told Thursday to pack a bag and be prepared to move elsewhere. The nation's biggest city hasn't seen a hurricane in decades.
Farther south, tens of thousands packed up and left North Carolina beach towns and farmers pulled up their crops.
Daughtry has lost count of how many times his crops have been wiped out by storms that regularly blow up from the tropics.
"That's the price of living in paradise," he said of a fertile farm belt that's weathered an unusually hot and dry summer. Any deluge from Irene's rain bands could wipe out many crops just when they are ready for harvesting.
What's at stake in North Carolina? Latest figures show coastal North Carolina's fields earned nearly $6.3 billion in farm income in 2009 alone from its tobacco, corn and other crops.
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