Hurricane Isabel made its presence known along the mid-Atlantic coast early today with sharp wind gusts, roaring surf and slanting rain -- the ominous tendrils of a whirling storm that forced a chaotic evacuation of thousands of beach residents in North Carolina and Virginia.
Wheeling like a circular blade, the massive storm picked up speed as it scudded toward the coastline Wednesday. Isabel was primed for landfall at midday today at North Carolina’s Outer Banks, and was expected to hurtle northward over Virginia’s Hampton Roads area and Chesapeake Bay.
Moving at 13 mph with wind gusts of 105 mph, Isabel had slackened slightly from its peak strength. But safety officials said it remained a powerful Category 2 hurricane that could spawn tidal surges of up to 10 feet and spread flood and wind damage across coastal lowlands. The strongest hurricanes, Category 5, have sustained winds of at least 155 mph.
Even 250 miles from landfall, Isabel dashed plans and altered routines for nearly 21 million people within its projected path. The federal government closed up shop, transportation routes dwindled and schools closed by the hundreds -- leaving thousands little to do but wait nervously for the first hint of beating rain and keening winds.
One police chief issued a blunt warning Wednesday to beach-dwelling die-hards. “We are asking citizens who choose to stay in the mandatory evacuation area that, when contacted by a police officer, they will need to provide next of kin,” said Virginia Beach Police Chief Alfred “Jake” Jacocks. “We’ll ask them to use a permanent Magic Marker to write their names on their forearms so we can identify them.”
In Washington, the Office of Personnel Management said all federal offices would be closed today. Flags and banners were taken down at the White House. House and Senate members wrapped up business early. Many hearings were canceled, including a confirmation hearing for Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, President Bush’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency. And Bush left for Camp David, Md., on Wednesday night, one day earlier than planned.
Amtrak shut down service south of the nation’s capital and US Airways canceled hundreds of flights scheduled for today -- a precaution expected to be followed by other carriers.
The hurricane is expected to temporarily diminish blood donations along the East Coast, the American Red Cross said, reducing the blood supply throughout the country and forcing hospitals as far away as Los Angeles to postpone some elective surgeries.
Hundreds of public schools and colleges as far north as suburban Baltimore were shuttered.
In the Norfolk, Va., area, public safety officials said emergency vehicles and personnel would be taken off the streets when the winds were above 58 mph -- an arc of vulnerability that could last as long as nine hours.
By dusk Wednesday, darkened clouds hung over Virginia Beach. Winds raked the sand, sweeping a fine grit into the faces of those still outside. Safe inside a city rescue cruiser, diver Bob Zogg, 53, eyed the pounding surf. “If we get the 9-foot storm surges they’re predicting, it’ll be up over the boardwalk here.”
Out beyond a rickety pier, a lone surfer struggled in the churning waves.
The isolated islands of North Carolina’s Outer Banks were mostly abandoned, and oceanfront areas of Virginia Beach emptied out Wednesday as nearly 230,000 residents and merchants along the Atlantic Seaboard were ordered to seek shelter.
In New Bern, N.C., a city of 25,000 near the Neuse River, Marine Capt. Bruce Frame said families of fliers stationed at the Cherry Point Air Station were leaving their low-lying homes by the hundreds. “We’ve opened four shelters, but we’re hoping lots of folks will go to neighbors and friends,” he said.
Hurricane warnings were in effect from Cape Fear in southern North Carolina to the Virginia-Maryland line. Tropical storm warnings extended from South Carolina to New Jersey. The governors of West Virginia, Maryland and Delaware joined their counterparts in Virginia and North Carolina in declaring emergencies and calling up National Guardsmen. The mayor of Washington did likewise.
More than 9 inches of rain was forecast today for parts of Pennsylvania, and Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said heavy rain could extend all the way to New England. Pennsylvania officials said the ground was so sodden that it would take as little as 2 to 4 inches of rain to cause rivers and creeks to spill their banks.
At the historic settlement of Jamestown, Va., archeologists blanketed a dig site with a tarp and anchored it with sandbags. In Edenton, N.C., laborers were laying sandbags around the town’s generators and water treatment plant.
From Cape Hatteras, N.C., to Maryland’s Eastern Shore, coastal residents made final runs to depleted food markets and hardware stores.
Weapons sales also spiked. At Superior Pawn and Gun in Virginia Beach, a dozen shotguns had been sold since Monday to residents worried they might face post-storm looting.
“People want to protect what’s theirs,” said clerk Ed Schaffer, pointing to a rack of semiautomatic rifles. The store’s owner planned to camp out in the shop with a loaded weapon. “He’s got a $1-million investment to take care of,” Schaffer said.
Work crews descended Wednesday on Atlantic Avenue, Virginia Beach’s oceanfront artery, boarding up dozens of buildings in less than five hours. By day’s end, the street looked like a ghost town, swathed in plywood and blowing sawdust.
As drills whined and hammers pounded outside an auto electric supply shop, owner Gordon Rudolph -- who passed up a free ride out of Virginia Beach at noon -- was still uncertain about returning to his apartment just five blocks from the shore.
“I like to live life on the edge,” he said, “but not like this.”
As shoppers double-timed through crowded aisles in a Virginia Beach Food Lion, many admitted they had held off until the last minute because of forecasters’ uncertainty over the storm’s path and seesawing reports about Isabel’s strength.
“Girl, you heard what they said on the radio, Isabel’s getting nasty again,” LaRelle Symes told Clarrise Bacon as the friends loaded a shopping cart with six-packs of Dr Pepper, cans of tuna and Spam and a small mountain of potato chips.
National Hurricane Center meteorologist Eric Blake cautioned residents in Isabel’s path not to let their guard down. “Hurricanes are notorious for gaining strength as they cross the Gulf Stream,” he said. Even at Category 2, “there’s still a lot of potential for danger.”
Even a Virginia Beach palm reader seemed befuddled as she tried to divine whether Isabel would spare her town or savage it. The wind had started to pick up outside “Mrs. West’s Palm Readings” when a woman who identified herself as Helen Miller emerged from a locked studio.
Inside, a fountain with porcelain figurines spouted water.
Clutching her cellphone, Miller said: “I don’t know whether to stay or go back to New Jersey.”
But when asked whether she might employ her psychic powers, Miller’s brow furrowed.
“Oh, you mean Mrs. West,” she said. “That’s not me. But Mrs. West knows. She says the storm will come and it will do some damage, but life will go on. Maybe I will stay too. Yes, I will stay.”
Times researchers Rennie Sloan in New Bern, N.C., and Anna Virtue in Miami, staff writer Elizabeth Shogren in Washington and Associated Press contributed to this report.