Hurricane Irene, a ferocious and slow-moving storm, smashed into North Carolina, then slowly swirled its way up the Eastern Seaboard, flooding low-lying areas, knocking out power to as many as a million customers and forcing the densely populated regions of Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and New York City to take unprecedented steps as they braced for impact.
At least nine people died — in car accidents, in robust surf, by heart attack and by falling trees — in North Carolina, Virginia and Florida. Forecasters said Irene was expected to continue its northward path through New England before weakening early Sunday morning. The youngest victim, an 11-year-old boy, died when a tree crashed through his apartment building in Newport News, Va.
In the first areas to feel the hurricane’s punch, though, there was minor flooding and major relief.
“It’s not nearly as bad as it could have been,” said Bobby Outten, manager of Dare County, which includes Roanoke Island and much of the Outer Banks, a vulnerable stretch of Carolina coast.
Nearby Nags Head, a fragile barrier island, escaped with no serious damage. “We were lucky,” said Mayor Bob Oakes.
Though Irene’s landfall was less catastrophic than predicted, “the storm isn’t over,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Rick Watling. “We have to wait a little longer to see” what happens in the population centers of the mid-Atlantic.
Storm-related disruptions were widespread. About 10,000 commercial airline flights were canceled, and more than 2 million people were ordered evacuated from areas threatened by the floodwaters that accompanied the 450-mile-wide hurricane’s northward trek at 16 mph.
Anticipating the hurricane’s arrival Sunday, New York City officials said they might shut off power in Lower Manhattan to prevent people from getting trapped in elevators. Evacuation orders were enforced in Staten Island and Battery Park in New York City, as well as the Jersey Shore, all coastal areas of Delaware, plus parts of Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina.
“Staying behind is dangerous, staying behind is foolish, and it’s against the law,” said New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie took to television to plead with about 600 seniors who refused to leave their Atlantic City high-rises. He said he feared they would be injured or worse if the hurricane’s expected 80 mph winds shattered their windows.
“You’re correct that I cannot make you leave your home, and I certainly do not intend to place you under arrest to get you to leave,” the Republican governor said. “But if you stay where you are, you’re putting yourself in danger as well as your loved ones.”
In New York City, the country’s largest subway system was shut down as officials took precautions against flooding. To minimize flying debris, city sanitation workers overturned 25,000 trash cans, pushed them against buildings and hoped for the best.
High winds and rain sporadically knocked out power to Washington, D.C., and its suburbs. Grocery store lines were long, and traffic was gridlocked around Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, where the city was distributing free sandbags. Residents waited hours only to be told in the late afternoon that the supply had been exhausted.
The storm also forced officials to accelerate the transfer of the last inpatients at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The 102-year-old hospital has been slated for closure for years. On Saturday morning, supporters stood with signs outside the gates — “Thank you for your service. We love you!” — as an ambulance carried away the last patient.
As the hurricane’s surge reached the mouth of Chesapeake Bay on Saturday afternoon, coastal Maryland and Virginia began feeling the strength of the storm. Police stopped patrolling in Ocean City, Md., about 7 p.m. as winds picked up and streets flooded. In tidewater Virginia communities, authorities imposed a nighttime curfew.
President Obama, who paid a visit Saturday to the Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters in Washington, declared a state of emergency in nine states.
The president praised emergency preparations, but warned that the worst was not over. “It’s going to be a long 72 hours,” he said. “And obviously a lot of families are going to be affected.... So we’ll have to stay on top of the recovery.”
FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said that the large, slow-moving storm could also produce tornadoes. The funnel clouds “will not be on the ground very long,” he said. “But they can still be very devastating.”
Officials dispatched workers to 11 nuclear power plants along the Eastern Seaboard to make sure the reactors were protected by backup power systems, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Though the storm was downgraded to a Category 1 hurricane as it made landfall in Jacksonville, N.C., and Cape Lookout, N.C., on Saturday morning, it still packed 85-mph winds. Officials warned people not to underestimate Irene’s potential for devastation.
“If you’re in a hurricane, you’re in a hurricane,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said at a briefing at FEMA headquarters. “We anticipate heavy rain, potential flooding and significant power outages throughout the area of the storm.”
But those warnings went unheeded by some. On Long Island, a block from the water in South Freeport, 23-year-old Nick Dionisio could not bring himself to abandon his house and boats.
“You gotta watch your stuff,” Dionisio said. “I got no other choice.”
Dionisio was less worried about the winds than the 6- to 8-foot tidal surge predicted with the hurricane’s arrival late Saturday or early Sunday. He planned to drive his car inland, then return by foot or bike.
By Sunday morning, Irene was expected to weaken to a tropical storm as it reached New England. It is expected to lose steam as it moves north and east across the eastern edge of Canada, finally veering into the Atlantic Ocean, off Newfoundland and Labrador.
Five hurricane-related deaths have been reported in North Carolina since Friday.
A man installing plywood on the windows of his home in Onslow County died of a heart attack; another in Nash County was killed by a falling tree limb outside his home; and a third died in Pitt County when he lost control of his vehicle and hit a tree. And two others were killed in car accidents, including a 15-year-old girl in Wayne County.
North Carolina officials reported 135 traffic accidents and the closure of several major highways because of fallen trees, flooding or downed power lines.
In Virginia, in addition to the 11-year-old killed, a man died in Brunswick County when a tree fell on his car.
And off New Smyrna Beach, Fla., a 55-year-old surfer died in 4- to 5-foot waves. A second man, a 55-year-old from New Jersey, died in the ocean north of Flagler Beach.
Despite the warnings, there were plenty of skeptics.
In Morehead City on North Carolina’s southeastern coast, the mood among many veterans of previous hurricanes was defiant. At Sammy’s Seafood House and Oyster Bar, owner Sammy Boyd sat at his bar calmly eating a steak Saturday afternoon.
The streets were empty, and his competitors on the touristy strip were boarded up. But Boyd, a former commercial fisherman, was open for business.
A Category 4 or 5, he said, would have driven him to safer ground. But a Category 1? “To me,” Boyd said, “it felt like a regular old bout of wind and rain.”
Kim Geiger and Tom Hamburger in Washington, D.C.; Nathaniel Popper in South Freeport, N.Y.; David Meeks in Atlantic City, N.J.; Geraldine Baum in New York; and Stephen Ceasar and Robin Abcarian in Los Angeles contributed to this report.