Hurricane Irene death toll hits 5, with boy killed by tree in Virginia
At least five people have died -- in a car accident, by heart attack and by falling trees -- as a result of Hurricane Irene, the slow-moving but powerful swirl of wind and rain that barreled ashore in North Carolina.
As the storm moved steadily north on Saturday, heavily populated areas of Washington, D.C., and New York City braced for impact. Irene is expected to continue its northward path through New England, before weakening early Sunday morning.
Storm-related disruptions of daily life were immense: More than 2 million people were ordered evacuated from low-lying areas that were expected to be inundated by surging flood waters accompanying the nearly 450-mile wide hurricane's northward 14 mph trek. The country’s largest subway system ground to a halt as New York City officials took precautions against flooding.
President Obama, who paid an unannounced visit today to the Federal Emergency Management Administration headquarters in Washington, declared a state of emergency in nine states, as government officials and residents dealt with or prepared for major power outages, flooding and wind-driven damage to buildings and infrastructure.
FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said that the large, slow-moving storm could also produce dangerous tornadoes. Tornadoes "will not be on the ground very long," he said. "But they can still be very devastating."
Officials also expressed concern about 11 nuclear power plants along the Eastern Seaboard and said they had dispatched staff to make sure the plants' reactors are protected by backup power systems, said a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Though the hurricane was downgraded to a Category 1 as it made landfall in Jacksonville, N.C., on Saturday morning, it still packed 85 mph winds and plenty of danger. Officials warned people not to underestimate Irene’s power for devastation.
"If you’re in a hurricane, you're in a hurricane," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Saturday morning at a briefing at FEMA headquarters. "We anticipate heavy rain, potential flooding and significant power outages throughout the area of the storm, which means all up and down the Eastern Seaboard."
The first three deaths from Hurricane Irene were reported in North Carolina. A man in Nash County, N.C., was reported killed by a falling tree limb outside his home on Saturday, local authorities said. And on Friday, a man installing plywood on the window of his home in Onslow County, N.C., died of a heart attack, said Ernie Seneca of the North Carolina Emergency Management office in Raleigh.
A third man died in Pitt County when he lost control of his vehicle and hit a tree, officials said.
In Newport News, Va., an 11-year-old boy was killed when a tree crashed into his apartment building, said Kim Lee, a spokeswoman for the city.
And in Brunswick County, Va., a tree fell on a car, killing one other person, said Eileen Guertler, a spokeswoman at the Virginia operations center.
Also, authorities in New Hanover County, N.C., were searching for a man who either fell or jumped into the Cape Fear River on Friday as the first, outer bands of the storm began to ravage the area. A rescue team was sent out, but returned due to the rough conditions, said Michelle Harrell, an emergency operations staff member there.
County officials planned today to send a boat out again, but Harrell said it would not be considered a rescue mission.
"It is now more of a recovery mission," she said.
In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie said authorities would make a “last-ditch effort” to evacuate roughly 600 senior citizens who refused to leave their Atlantic City high-rises.
Atlantic City is under a mandatory evacuation order, but Christie acknowledged that if residents decline to heed the order, he cannot force them.
“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,” Christie said, aiming his remarks at the holdouts. “But if you stay where you are, you’re putting yourself in danger as well as your loved ones.”
Despite resistance in Atlantic City, Christie estimated that “well over 90%” of Atlantic County’s residents have left. Earlier, on Friday, he had been emphatic: “Get the hell off the beach! You’re tan enough.”
On Saturday afternoon, he said, “The good news is people heeded my subtle advice yesterday... Over a million people have left the Jersey shore in the last 24 hours.”
Meanwhile, a tropical storm warning was issued Saturday for parts of Canada, spanning from the U.S. border to Fort Lawrence and including the southern coast of Nova Scotia, said Dennis Feltgen, a spokesman for the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
-- Robin Abcarian, from staff reports
Photo: Hurricane Irene left its mark along the East Coast on Saturday, including on this convenience store in Avon, N.C. Credit: Chuck Liddy / Raleigh News & Observer / MCT