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“Hurricanes are just part of doing business down here,” he said.

In Virginia, officials recalled Hurricane Isabel in 2003, which came ashore as a Category 1, killed more than 30 people and caused more than $1 billion in property damage. The low-lying Hampton Roads region is at high risk of flooding from storm surge and heavy rains. Widespread power outages are likely.

The Navy ordered many of its ships at Norfolk Naval Station out to sea to wait out the storm, including the aircraft carrier USS Dwight Eisenhower, as well as destroyers and submarines.

Gearing up for approaching hurricanes is an almost annual occurrence in coastal North Carolina and Virginia, so planning is extensive and almost second-nature.

Building codes along the Outer Banks require structures to be reinforced to withstand sustained winds of up to 110 mph and gusts up to 130 mph. Houses close to the water must be elevated on pilings to keep them above storm surges, and required setbacks preserve sand dunes to provide additional protection.

It could be a different story as the storm moves up the coast.

In Washington, where residents were rattled by a rare earthquake Tuesday, officials warned people to be prepared for stormy conditions regardless of Irene’s exact path and to stay away from the beaches in the region.

The Philadelphia area could get more than a half-foot of rain, accompanied by sustained winds up to 50 mph. Mayor Michael Nutter said it could be the worst storm in at least 50 years. August has already been one of the rainiest months in city history.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie asked all visitors to the shore to get out by midday Friday. He said Irene was poised to be a “serious, significant event,” with flooding a threat across the entire state. A mandatory evacuation was ordered for Cape May County.

In a normal hurricane, tropical storm-force winds extend about 150 miles from the eye. Irene’s winds extend nearly 250 miles.

Another worry is that the ground is already saturated in the Northeast after a wet spring and summer. That means trees and power lines will be more vulnerable to winds, like during Hurricane Isabel, Mayfield said.

New York is especially susceptible with its large subway network and the waterways around the city, Mayfield said.

“In many ways, a Category 2 or stronger storm hitting New York is a lot of people’s nightmare,” said Susan Cutter, director of the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina.

High water in the harbor and rivers, along with a high tide at the end of the month because of the new moon, could cause serious flooding. New York’s three airports are close to the water, putting them at risk, too, Cutter said.

And if the storm shifts further to the west, placing New York City on the stronger right-hand quadrant of the storm, “that is what’s going to push this wall of water into the bays and the Hudson River.”

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