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Dublin: 6 °C Friday 22 November, 2019
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"Don't wait. Don't delay" - Obama urges those in Irene's path to move quickly

Over two million people are affected by evacuation orders as Hurricane Irene heads for land off the eastern sea board of the United States.

Rains and waves from Hurricane Irene batter the shore in downtown Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
Rains and waves from Hurricane Irene batter the shore in downtown Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
Image: AP Photo/Bruce Smith

MORE THAN TWO million people were told to move to safer places as Hurricane Irene zeroes in on the east coast of the US, as New York City ordered the nation’s biggest subway system shut down for the first time because of a natural disaster.

As the storm’s outermost bands of wind and rain lashed the North Carolina coast, knocking out power in places, authorities farther north begged people to get out of harm’s way.

The hurricane was still packing 100 mph winds early this morning, and officials in the Northeast, not used to tropical weather, feared it could wreak devastation.

Tornado watches and warnings were in effect along the coast ahead of the hurricane. A coastal town official in North Carolina said witnesses believed a tornado spawned by Irene lifted the roof off the warehouse of a car dealership in Belhaven on Friday night and damaged a mobile home, an outbuilding and trees.

“Don’t wait. Don’t delay,” said President Barack Obama, who decided to cut short his summer holiday 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 90 miles from its center. The NHC has advised that the centre of the storm is moving towards the coast of North Carolina.

Wind and rains have knocked out power to about 45,000 customers along the coast, including a hospital in Morehead City. A woman who answered the phone there said the hospital was running on generators, according to the Associated Press.

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.
U.S. airlines canceled at least 6,100 flights through to Monday, grounding hundreds of thousands of passengers. The storm could strike major airports from Washington to Boston with heavy rain and dangerous winds. Aer Lingus has cancelled six flights to and from JFK airport in New York on Sunday, but says all other flights are scheduled to operate. Some flights to Washington have also been cancelled.

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. The New York Times has compiled a graphic indicating which areas are at high risk, and where the hurricane evacuation centres are. The paper has also announced that it’s to provide unlimited free access to its storm coverage.

On top of that, the city said it would shut down the subways and buses at noon today, 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 11 September attacks a decade ago, but never for weather.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has 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, 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 Friday afternoon, and the city was placed under its first hurricane warning since 1985.

“Get the hell off the the beach”

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.

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 left at 4 p.m. Friday.

“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. By Friday evening 50 mph winds were measured at Wrightsville Beach, N.C.

Heading to shelters

Some took to shelters for protection.

Susan Kinchen, her daughter and 5-month-old granddaughter came to West Carteret High School with about 50 others. She said they didn’t feel safe in their trailer, and the Louisiana native was reminded of how her old trailer lost its roof to Hurricane Katrina, almost six years ago to the day, on Aug. 29, 2005.

“We live in a trailer with her,” said Kinchen, referring to the infant. “I’m not taking any chances.”

Hurricane center meteorologist David Zelinsky said earlier yesterday 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. On Friday night, Irene was a Category 2.

The hurricane center said Irene could weaken into a tropical storm before reaching New England, but that even below hurricane strength it would be powerful and potentially destructive.

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.

Later as heavy rains drenched Nags Head, Domanski had cooked his favorite dinner of veal parmesan and spaghetti for his wife, Joy.

He planned to watch TV, but knows his satellite dish and power could go out any time. He has plenty of flashlights and candles and plans to go to sleep early.

“So far everything is OK. The rain isn’t bad. I know it could change. But I just don’t think it’s going to be as bad as they say. I’m hopeful,” he said.

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 Friday, and grocery stores scrambled to keep water and bread on the shelves.

In Delaware, Gov. Jack Markell ordered an evacuation of coastal areas on the peninsula the state shares with Delaware and Virginia.

Kenneth Roe was filling up three 5-gallon gas cans at an Exxon station in Salisbury, Md., on Friday night. A manager at a Home Depot in Lewes, Del., the 34-year-old had worked 18 hours straight on Thursday and another five hours on Friday, his day off. He said the store was staying open 24 hours in order to provide supplies and that generators in particular were in high demand. Approximately 50 generators put out at 6 a.m. were gone by 8 a.m., he said, even though each cost $600..

“We’re going to get something no matter what,” he said of the effects of the storm.

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. The Jets and Giants moved their preseason NFL game up to 2 p.m. Saturday from 7 p.m., but then postponed it until Monday.

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

- Additional reporting by AP

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