Hurricane Irene, a ferocious and slow-moving storm, smashed into North Carolina on Saturday morning, then slowly swirled its way up the Eastern Seaboard, flooding low-lying areas, knocking out power to as many as 1 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 eight people are known to have died as a result of the storm in North Carolina, Virginia and Florida.
Irene is expected to continue its northward path through New England before weakening early Sunday morning. The youngest victim, an 11-year-old boy, was killed when a tree crashed through his apartment building in Newport News, Va.
PHOTOS: In the path of Hurricane Irene
“I've never even heard of a hurricane around here,” said Peter Watts, working at the Vitamin Shoppe in downtown Philadelphia. “Or an earthquake,” he said, referring to Tuesday’s 5.8-magnitude temblor that shook the East Coast.
Storm-related disruptions of daily life were immense. About 10,000 commercial airline flights were canceled, and more than 2 million people were ordered evacuated from areas inundated by the surging floodwaters that accompanied the 450-mile-wide hurricane's northward path at 16 mph.
Evacuation orders affected people in Staten Island and Battery Park in New York City, 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 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,” Christie 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 ground to a halt as officials took precautions against flooding. In an effort to minimize flying debris in the face of brutal, sustained winds, city sanitation workers turned over 25,000 trash cans.
Obama visits FEMA
President Obama, who paid an unannounced visit Saturday to the Federal Emergency Management Administration 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,” the president 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 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, according to a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Though the storm was downgraded to a Category 1 hurricane 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.”
By Sunday morning, the storm was expected to weaken to a tropical storm as it reached New England. It will continue 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.
Deaths in the South
Five deaths from Hurricane Irene were reported in North Carolina.
On Friday, a man installing plywood on the window of his home in Onslow County died of a heart attack, said Ernie Seneca of the North Carolina Emergency Management office in Raleigh. A man in Nash County, N.C., was reported killed by a falling tree limb outside his home Saturday; and a third man died in Pitt County when he lost control of his vehicle and hit a tree, officials said. Two others in the state died in car accidents.
In Newport News, Va., an 11-year-old boy was killed when a tree crashed into his apartment building, said Kim Lee, a city spokeswoman. And in Brunswick County, a man died when a tree fell on his car.
And off New Smyrna Beach, Fla., authorities said, a 55-year-old surfer died in 7-foot waves.
PHOTOS: In the path of Hurricane Irene
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 because of the rough conditions, said Michelle Harrell, an emergency operations staff member there.
“It is now more of a recovery mission,” Harrell said.
Despite the deaths and disruption, there were plenty of skeptics of the multi-state alarms and evacuation orders.
On Harker’s Island along North Carolina’s southeastern coast, for instance, the mood among many hurricane veterans was defiant. On Saturday afternoon, at Sammy’s Seafood House and Oyster Bar, owner Sammy Boyd sat at his wooden bar putting away a steak lunch.
The streets were empty, and his competitors on the touristy strip -- the Ruddy Duck, the Sanitary -- were boarded up. But Boyd -- a former commercial fisherman -- declared he was open for business.
He had been watching the storm closely, but had a feeling it wasn’t going to be the end of the world. A Category 4 or 5, he said, would have driven him to safer ground. But a Category 1? “To me, it felt like a regular old bout of wind and rain.”
On Long Island, a block from the water in South Freeport, Nick Dionisio watched his neighbors take off.
“I thought he was going to stick it out,” said Dionisio as a car drove past.
“Anyone smart would leave,” replied his friend, Jesse Olivero.
Irene’s eye was predicted to hit there late Saturday night or early Sunday morning.
Dionisio and his friends decided to defy evacuation orders.
“You gotta watch your stuff,” said Dionisio, 23. “I got not other choice.”
Dionisio is worried about the tide that is expected to surge to 6 to 8 feet. The hurricane is set to land just as the new moon brings the highest tide of the month Sunday morning.
Dionisio planned to drive his car inland, then return by foot or bike to stay. “You don't want to be caught sleeping during this,” Dionisio said.
As Hurricane Irene's surge had reached the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay on Saturday afternoon, coastal Maryland and Virginia began feeling the strength of the storm.
In Ocean City, Md., police stopped patrolling about 7 p.m. as winds picked up and streets became flooded.
The city had been effectively evacuated since midnight Thursday with only 200 or so people remaining, according to city communications officer Donna Abbott. Speaking from the town’s emergency center, Abbott said police were still responding to emergency calls Saturday evening, but that those could be halted if sustained winds over 50 mph continued for 10 minutes or more.
Police in tidewater Virginia communities imposed a curfew, asking that no one travel during evening hours within the city limits of Portsmouth and Hampton. Officials in Virginia Beach ordered residents to evacuate several low-lying areas and the city opened shelters.
Flash flood watch in DC
Washington, D.C., and its suburbs were drenched but not badly disabled Saturday afternoon and early evening as bands of rain and wind started to hit the region. Anxiety and anticipation took the biggest toll during the day. Checkstands at a grocery stores in Washington's northwest quadrant were backed up as residents stocked up on food and emergency supplies.
Traffic gridlocked around Washington’s Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, where the city was distributing free sandbags. Residents waited hours in line only to be told in the late afternoon that the supply had been exhausted.
PHOTOS: In the path of Hurricane Irene
Frustrated residents then learned that buying sandbags also was not an option. The Strosnider’s Hardware chain sold out of all sandbags at its three suburban Maryland locations early in the day. Power outages were reported sporadically in Maryland and Virginia as the sun set.
The district was under a flash-flood warning Saturday night, as city officials warned of winds up to 65 mph and 4 to 8 inches of rainfall.
The storm also forced officials to accelerate transfer of the last remaining in-patients at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The facility's Red Cross flag was lowered a day early Saturday afternoon, after original plans to close the medical center were moved up because of the impending storm.
The northwest Washington facility, which has accumulated a devoted following in its 102 years of service, had been slated for closure for years. On Saturday morning, supporters stood outside Walter Reed's gates with signs –- “Thank you for your service. We love you!” –- as an ambulance carrying the last remaining in-patient turned down Georgia Avenue.
Area airports began curtailing flights and Washington’s Reagan National Airport was reported as open but with no flights arriving or departing Saturday evening. United Airlines said it hoped to operate most of its flights out of Dulles Airport in suburban Virginia. But United Express announced it would cease operations.
Tourists trapped in New York City
N.C. expected flooding from Irene -- and got it
Connecticut and Rhode Island join evacuation lists
-- David Meeks in Philadelphia and New Jersey, Richard Fausset and David Zucchino in North Carolina, Kim Geiger and Tom Hamburger in Washington, D.C., Nathaniel Popper and Geraldine Baum in New York, and Stephen Ceasar and Robin Abcarian in Los Angeles.
Photo: A satellite image released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Saturday shows the sprawl of Hurricane Irene over the east coast of North Carolina as it made landfall. Credit: NOAA