- Associated Press - Friday, August 26, 2011

NAGS HEAD, N.C. — Hurricane Irene began lashing the East Coast with rain Friday ahead of a weekend of violent weather that was almost certain to heap punishment on a vast stretch of shoreline from the Carolinas to Massachusetts.

For hundreds of miles, people in the storm’s path headed inland, made last-minute preparations and monitored the hurricane’s every subtle movement. Irene had the potential to cause billions of dollars in damage all along a densely populated arc that included Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Boston and beyond. At least 65 million people could be affected.

President Obama said all indications point to the storm being a historic hurricane.

“I cannot stress this highly enough. If you are in the projected path of this hurricane, you have to take precautions now,” Obama said Friday from Martha’s Vineyard. He was wrapping up his vacation a day early and now planned to leave Friday, before Irene is expected to pass the area around the capital, the White House said.

As Irene trudged to the north, tropical storm-force winds of at least 39 mph (63 kph) were pelting the Carolinas, and rains had already begun affecting the coast. Swells and 6- to 9-foot waves were reported along the Outer Banks. Winds were expected to pick up later. Thousands had already lost power as the fringes of the storm began raking the shore.

Kia Head carries Christian Searcy in her arms while protecting their faces from wind and sand blown in from Hurricane Irene in Tybee Island, Ga., on Aug. 26, 2011. Hurricane Irene is expected to pass off shore of coastal Georgia but officals are still banning swimmers for the water due to high winds and rough seas. (Associated Press)
Kia Head carries Christian Searcy in her arms while protecting their faces ... more >

And Irene’s wrath in the Caribbean, including Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas, gave a preview of what might be coming to the U.S.: Power outages, dangerous floods and high winds that caused millions of dollars in damage.

Hurricane warnings remained in effect from North Carolina to New Jersey. Hurricane watches were in effect even farther north and included Long Island, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, Mass.

Risks from Irene’s wrath were many: surging seas, drenching rains, flash floods and high winds. The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency had warned previously that this is one of the largest populations to be affected by one storm at one time.

On Friday morning, FEMA Director Craig Fugate and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano pleaded with people to heed warnings.

“People need to leave early, travel a safe distance and get somewhere safe,” Fugate said. ‘All the preparation and planning will be in vain if people don’t heed those evacuation orders.”

In addition to widespread wind and water damage, Irene could also push crude oil prices higher if it disrupts refineries in Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia, which produce nearly 8 percent of U.S. gasoline and diesel fuel.

By Friday afternoon, Irene had weakened slightly but remained a Category 2 storm with maximum sustained winds near 100 mph (161 kph). Little change in strength was expected by the time Irene reaches the North Carolina coast on Saturday, but forecasters at the National Hurricane Center warned it would be a large and dangerous storm nonetheless.

In North Carolina, traffic was steady Friday as people fled the Outer Banks and beach towns. A day earlier, tourists were ordered to leave the barrier islands, though local officials estimated Friday that about half the residents on two of the islands have ignored evacuation orders.

In Nags Head, police officer Edward Mann cruised the streets in search of cars in driveways — a telltale sign they planned to stay behind. He warned those that authorities wouldn’t be able to help holdouts in hurricane-force winds, and that electricity and water could be out for days.

Some tell Mann they’re staying because they feel safe or because the storm won’t be as bad as predicted. Mann, 25, said some have told him they’ve ridden out more storms than years he’s been alive.

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