On Thursday night, President Obama declared a state of emergency in North Carolina, which makes the state eligible for federal aid even before the expected weekend hit by Hurricane Irene.
Mr. Obama’s order means the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) can coordinate all disaster-relief efforts and supplement state and local responses to the storm.
The nation’s entire East Coast braced Thursday as Irene threatened up to 65 million people along a shore-hugging path from North Carolina to New England, a scenario one of the nation’s top experts called his “nightmare” case. Tens of thousands fled North Carolina beach towns, farmers pulled up their crops, and the Navy ordered ships to sea from its main base at Norfolk, Va., so they could ride out the punishing wind and waves in open water.
As of 8 p.m. Thursday, the Category 3 storm was about 530 miles south-southwest of Cape Hatteras, N.C., and was packing winds of 115 mph - the threshold for a major hurricane. Irene also was geographically huge, with tropical-force winds extending 250 miles from the storm’s eye, almost twice as far as normal.
“One of my greatest nightmares was having a major hurricane go up the whole northeast coast,” said Max Mayfield, the center’s retired director.
Governors from North Carolina to New York declared emergencies, and authorities all the way to New England urged residents in low-lying areas to gather supplies and find a safe location. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie asked all shore visitors to get out by midday Friday, saying Irene was poised to be a “serious, significant event” and a flood threat to the entire state.
New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg ordered nursing homes and five hospitals in low-lying areas evacuated beginning Friday and said he may order 270,000 other people moved by Saturday. Evacuating hundreds of thousands of people would be a major task in New York, where about 1.6 million people live just in the low-lying island of Manhattan, many without cars.
Already in Florida near West Palm Beach, authorities said, the rough ocean churned up by the outer bands of Irene caused eight people to be injured when a wave knocked them off a jetty.
Irene struck the Bahamas on Wednesday, but primarily hit the archipelago’s smaller, less-populated islands while doing no more than knock out power to Nassau, the country’s capital and a major tourist destination with 200,000 residents. There were no immediate reports of major injuries or deaths, Bahamian officials said.