|By David Zucchino, Los Angeles
TimesMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Aug. 26, 2011--REPORTING FROM NAGS HEAD, N.C -- As massive Hurricane Irene advanced toward the Eastern Seaboard with 115-mph winds, officials issued a hurricane warning for the entire North Carolina coast to the Virginia border, New York ordered low-lying hospitals and nursing homes to evacuate, and at least seven states declared emergencies.
If Irene follows its current projected path, it will make landfall along North Carolina's Outer Banks on Saturday. The Category 3 storm withdrew from the Bahamas late Thursday, traveling north at 14 mph, the National Hurricane Center said.
Although North Carolina will take the first blow, "The rest of the Eastern Seaboard is well within the path of this storm," National Hurricane Center Director Bill Read said.
North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Delaware and Connecticut declared states of emergency.
"This could be a 100-year event," New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said.
runtime:topic id="PLGEO100100804000000">New York City officials said they might have to suspend all mass transit beginning Saturday.
In addition to ordering nursing homes and hospitals in low-lying coastal areas to evacuate ahead of possible flooding, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg advised residents to stay out of parks.
"Because of the high winds that will accompany the storm, we are also urging all New Yorkers, for their own safety, to stay out of parks, where the high winds will increase the danger of downed trees and limbs," Bloomberg said. "And incidentally, it's a good idea to stay out of your own backyard if you have trees there."
Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial postponed it indefinitely.
The hurricane center warned of tidal surges 5 to 10 feet high in North Carolina, accompanied by "destructive and life-threatening waves." Projections show Irene making landfall between Morehead City, N.C., and Cape Hatteras before pushing north. Irene could inundate the state's coastal areas with 6 to 10 inches of rain, and up to 15 inches in some locations, forecasters said.
More than 50 million people live in the projected path of the storm. Some forecasters have said Irene has an outside chance of growing into a Category 4 storm, with sustained winds topping 130 mph. But current forecasts predict it will diminish to Category 2 after pummeling North Carolina, with sustained winds up to 110 mph as it plows into Virginia, Maryland and Delaware.
North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue declared an emergency in all counties east of Interstate 95, about a quarter of the state, and officials set up emergency shelters inland. President Obama declared North Carolina an emergency too, expediting federal help.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency established a depot for food, water, generators, baby formula and other emergency supplies at Ft. Bragg, N.C., as well as at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey and Westover Air Reserve Base in Massachusetts.
Cars loaded with coolers and surfboards fled the Outer Banks on Thursday, as people heeded orders to leave the exposed barrier islands. Tourists' vehicles clogged the main highway north to Virginia, and traffic on roads leading inland grew heavier as the day wore on.
Up to 200,000 tourists and residents are affected by evacuation orders in North Carolina alone, with states to the north rushing to prepare their own evacuation plans. Forecasters said Irene was so big and powerful that severe road flooding and widespread electrical outages were likely, especially in the Northeast, where the ground is saturated from recent rains.
"This is a very dangerous storm," said Dorothy Toolan of the Dare County Emergency Management office in Manteo, N.C., across the Roanoke Sound from Nags Head. "People really need to take this seriously."
Irene would be the first hurricane to hit the U.S. mainland since Ike devastated the Texas coast in 2008.
Facing a two-hour delay on the highway north to their home in Virginia, sisters Susan Wright and Beth Edwards decided to stick around and enjoy a final day in the sun and sand in Nags Head -- complete with mimosa cocktails. They had planned a weeklong vacation with their husbands and other friends and family at a $4,000-a-week beach house, only to be hit with a mandatory evacuation order.
Beth Edwards' husband, Joe Edwards, emerged from a roiling surf and announced, "The water's great -- warmer than the other day!"
But the undertow was fierce, Edwards acknowledged. It dragged his brother-in-law, Wes Wright -- and Wright's boogie board -- a couple of hundred yards down the beach.
Jessica Rider, 29, a lawyer, sat sunning herself on a hot, nearly cloudless beach day. With Irene projected to slam into Rider's hometown of Virginia Beach after pounding North Carolina, she figured she would be caught in a storm whether she stayed or drove home.
So she stayed another day, with plans to drive back to Virginia on Friday.
"Looks like I'll get there just in time for the rain and flooding," she said.
Dare County ordered its 34,000 year-round residents to evacuate, effective 8 a.m. Friday. But many locals said they intended to stay because they had survived numerous hurricanes and nor'easters over the years.
"I'm going to hunker down and ride it out, like I always do," said Karen Sealock, a restaurant manager who lives in Nags Head.
Sealock said she had survived at least a dozen serious storms in her 21 years on the barrier island. She evacuated only once, and that was because her late mother had begged her to get out of the way of Hurricane Isabel, which made landfall on the Outer Banks with winds of 105 mph in 2003.
Lionel and Clara Mae Shannon, who were born and raised on the Outer Banks, intend to ignore mandatory evacuation orders and stay at their home in Manteo, on Roanoke Island, a few miles west of Nags Head. Now in their late 60s, they have weathered countless storms inside their wood and cedar shake home.
"We always stay, and we're staying now. We'll be just fine," Lionel Shannon said.
Toolan, of the local emergency management center, said Irene had the potential to be among the most punishing storms to batter the Outer Banks in decades.
"I don't think too many of the people who live around here have seen a storm of this magnitude," she said. "This could be a really, really big one."
(c)2011 the Los Angeles Times
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