Hurricane Irene barrels toward East Coast

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BUXTON, N.C. (AP) — A nightmare Hurricane Irene barreled toward the Eastern Seaboard on Thursday, sending thousands of vacationers fleeing and threatening up to 65 million people from the Carolinas to New England.

The Category 3 storm with winds of 115 mph — the threshold for a major hurricane — would be the strongest to strike the East Coast in seven years, and people were already getting out of the way.

Tens of thousands fled North Carolina beach towns, farmers pulled up their crops, and the Navy ordered ships to sea so they could endure the punishing wind and waves in open water.

All eyes were on Irene’s projected path, which showed it bringing misery to every city along the I-95 corridor, including Washington, New York and Boston. The former chief of the National Hurricane Center called it one of his three worst possible situations.

“One of my greatest nightmares was having a major hurricane go up the whole Northeast Coast,” Max Mayfield, the center’s retired director, told The Associated Press.

He said the damage will probably climb into billions of dollars: “This is going to have an impact on the United States economy.”

It is a massive storm, with tropical-force winds extending almost twice as far as normal, about the same size as Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005.

“It’s not going to be a Katrina, but it’s serious,” said MIT meteorology professor Kerry Emanuel. “People have to take it seriously.”

The governors of North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, New York and New Jersey declared emergencies to free up resources, and authorities all the way to New England urged residents in low-lying areas to gather supplies and learn the way to a safe location.

Irene was expected to come ashore Saturday in North Carolina with 115 mph winds and a storm surge of 5 to 10 feet. It could dump a foot of rain, with as much as 15 inches falling in some places along the coast and around Chesapeake Bay.

Scientists predict Irene will then chug up the coast. Some forecasts showed it taking dead aim at New York City, with its eye passing over Brooklyn and Manhattan before weakening and trudging through New England.

If the storm strikes New York, it will probably be a Category 1 or 2, depending on its exact track, hurricane specialist John Cangialosi said.

Hurricanes are rare in the Northeast because the region’s cooler seas tend to weaken storms as they approach, and they have to take a narrow track to strike New York without first hitting other parts of the coast and weakening there.

Still, strong storms have been known to unleash serious damage in an urban environment already surrounded by water.

A September 1821 hurricane raised tides by 13 feet in an hour and flooded all of Manhattan south of Canal Street — an area that now includes the nation’s financial capital. An infamous 1938 storm dubbed the Long Island Express came ashore about 75 miles east of the city and then hit New England, killing 700 people and leaving 63,000 homeless.

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