Irene churns up coast, weaker but still ferocious

(08/27/11) MOREHEAD CITY, N.C. (AP) - Weaker but still menacing, Hurricane Irene knocked out power and piers in North Carolina, clobbered Virginia with wind and churned up the coast Saturday to confront cities more accustomed to snowstorms than tropical storms. New York City emptied its streets and subways and waited with an eerie quiet.

With most of its transportation machinery shut down, the EasternSeaboard spent the day nervously watching the storm's march acrossa swath of the nation inhabited by 65 million people. The hurricanehad an enormous wingspan - 500 miles, its outer reaches stretchingfrom the Carolinas to Cape Cod - and packed wind gusts of 115 mph.

Almost a million homes and businesses were without power. Whileit was too early to assess the full threat, Irene was blamed forfive deaths.

The hurricane stirred up 7-foot waves, and forecasters warned ofstorm-surge danger on the coasts of Virginia and Delaware, alongthe Jersey Shore and in New York Harbor and Long Island Sound. Inthe Northeast, drenched by rain this summer, the ground is alreadysaturated, raising the risk of flooding.

Irene made its official landfall just after first light nearCape Lookout, N.C., at the southern end of the Outer Banks, theribbon of land that bows out into the Atlantic Ocean. Shorefronthotels and houses were lashed with waves. Two piers were destroyed,and at least one hospital was forced to run on generator power.

By evening, the storm had weakened to sustained winds of 80 mph,down from 100 mph on Friday. That made it a Category 1, the leastthreatening on a 1-to-5 scale, and barely stronger than a tropicalstorm. Its center was positioned almost exactly where NorthCarolina meets Virginia at the Atlantic, and it was picking upspeed, moving at 16 mph - up from 13 mph - as it re-emerged overthe Atlantic. A hurricane warning had been lifted south of SurfCity, N.C.

After the Outer Banks, the storm strafed Virginia with rain andstrong wind. It covered the Hampton Roads region, which is thickwith inlets and rivers and floods easily, and chugged north towardChesapeake Bay. Shaped like a massive inverted comma, the storm hada thick northern flank that covered all of Delaware, almost all ofMaryland and the eastern half of Virginia.

The deaths included two children, an 11-year-old boy in Virginiakilled when a tree crashed through his roof and a North Carolinachild who died in a crash at an intersection where traffic lightswere out.

In addition, a North Carolina man was killed by a flying treelimb, a passenger died when a tree fell on in a car in Virginia,and a surfer in Florida was killed in heavy waves.

In New York, authorities began the herculean job of bringing thecity to a halt. The subway began shutting down at noon, the firsttime the system was closed because of a natural disaster. It wasexpected to take as long as eight hours for all the trains tocomplete their runs and be taken out of service.

On Wall Street, sandbags were placed around subway grates nearthe East River because of fear of flooding. Tarps were placed overother grates. Construction stopped throughout the city, and workersat the site of the World Trade Center dismantled a crane andsecured equipment.

While there were plenty of cabs on the street, the city was farquieter than on an average Saturday. In some of the busiest partsof Manhattan, it was possible to cross a major avenue withoutlooking, and the waters of New York Harbor, which might normally bechurning from boat traffic, were quiet before the storm.

The biggest utility, Consolidated Edison, considered cutting offpower to 6,500 customers in lower Manhattan because it would makethe eventual repairs easier. Mayor Michael Bloomberg also warnedNew Yorkers that elevators in public housing would be shut down,and elevators in some high-rises would quit working so people don'tget trapped if the power goes out.

The five main New York-area airports - La Guardia, John F.Kennedy and Newark, plus two smaller ones - waved in their lastarriving flights around noon. The Giants and Jets postponed theirpreseason NFL game, the Mets postponed two baseball games, andBroadway theaters were dark.

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