Ann Heisenfelt, Associated Press
MOREHEAD CITY, North Carolina — Tropical storm-force winds from Hurricane Irene began lashing the U.S. East Coast with rain with the potential to cause billions of dollars in damage along a densely populated arc that included Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston. At least 65 million people could be affected.
A hurricane warning was in effect Friday from North Carolina all the way to Massachusetts — including for New York City, where more than a quarter-million people were ordered to evacuate ahead of Irene's approach. It was the first hurricane warning issued for New York City in more than two decades.
Officials declared emergencies, called up hundreds of National Guard troops, shut down public transit systems and begged hundreds of thousands of people to obey evacuation orders. Airlines canceled more than 2,000 weekend flights.
The National Hurricane Center said the storm is unlikely to get any stronger and may weaken slightly before reaching land. It said Irene could weaken to a tropical storm before reaching the northern region of New England, but that even below hurricane strength it would be a powerful and potentially destructive storm.
As the storm's outermost bands of wind and rain began to lash islands off the coast of the southern state 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 100 mph (160 kph) winds, and officials in the Northeast, not used to tropical weather, feared it could wreak devastation.
Speaking from Martha's Vineyard Island where he is vacationing, President Barack Obama said all indications point to the storm being a historic hurricane.
"Don't wait. Don't delay," said 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."
Senior hurricane specialist Richard Pasch of the National Hurricane Center said there were signs that the hurricane may have weakened slightly, but strong winds continued to extend 100 miles (160 kilometers) from its center.
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.
Rain and tropical storm-force winds of at least 39 mph (63 kph) already were pelting North and South Carolina 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, South Carolina, several people had to be rescued after a tree fell on their car, trapping them.
The hurricane forced the president to wrap up his vacation a day early to return to Washington Friday night instead of Saturday afternoon.
Irene's wrath in the Caribbean, including Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas, gave a preview of what might be coming to the U.S.: Power outages, dangerous floods and high winds that caused millions of dollars in damage.
The U.S. East Coast, home to some of the country's most densely populated cities and costliest waterfront real estate, was expected to suffer a multibillion-dollar disaster, experts forecast.
In the Carolinas, swells and waves up to 9 feet (3 meters) were reported along the Outer Banks and thousands had already lost power as the fringes of the storm began raking the shore.
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.
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