MOREHEAD CITY, NC (AP) — Hurricane-force winds and drenching rains from Irene battered the North Carolina coast early Saturday as the storm began its potentially catastrophic run up the Eastern Seaboard. More than 2 million people were told to move to safer places, and New York City ordered the nation's biggest subway system shut down for the first time because of a natural disaster.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami said Irene's maximum sustained winds were around 85 mph on Saturday morning, down from about 100 mph a day earlier. But they warned the hurricane would remain a large and powerful one throughout the day as it trekked toward the mid-Atlantic.
"The hazards are still the same," NHC hurricane specialist Mike Brennan said. "The emphasis for this storm is on its size and duration, not necessarily how strong the strongest winds are."
Hurricane-force winds first arrived near Jacksonville, N.C., around 6:15 a.m. A little more than an hour later, the storm's center passed near the southern tip of North Carolina's Outer Banks. The eye of the storm is typically calm, but the storm's wind and rain are far from over. Forecasters said the landfall has little significance, as Irene remains a dangerous storm.
Just after daybreak in Nags Head on the Outer Banks, about 200 miles northeast of Jacksonville, winds whipped heavy rain across the resort town. Tall waves covered what had been the beach, and the surf pushed as high as the backs of some of the houses and hotels fronting the strand. Lights flickered in one hotel, but the power was still on.
As the storm's outer bands of wind and rain lashed the North Carolina coast, knocking out power in places, authorities farther north begged people to get out of harm's way. Officials in the northeast, not used to tropical weather, feared it could wreak devastation.
"Don't wait. Don't delay," said President Barack Obama, who decided to cut short his summer vacation by a day and return to Washington. "I cannot stress this highly enough: If you are in the projected path of this hurricane, you have to take precautions now."
Obama so far had declared emergencies for North Carolina, Virginia, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
The storm's center was about 5 miles north of Cape Lookout on North Carolina's Outer Banks early Saturday and lumbering north-northeastward at 14 mph.
Wind and rain knocked out power to more than 210,000 customers along the North Carolina coast, including a hospital in Morehead City. A woman who answered the phone there said the hospital was running on generators.
Residents along the Outer Banks said there wasn't serious damage yet. Alan Sutton, who owns a bait and tackle shop on Ocracoke Island, said he saw only a few limbs down as of 8 a.m., though he had not yet been outside. He hoped to head outside around lunchtime to assess the damage.
"Right now, we do not see any flooding," he said. "However, that could easily change when we get past the eye. A lot of water is pushed up in the sound, and we have to wait and see how that water comes back out."
However, officials already had started rescuing some people from homes as a precaution in Craven County, in case there was a sudden rise in water levels. Stanley Kite, the county's emergency services director, said about 2 feet of water pushed from Pamlico Sound into the Neuse River and was spreading into neighborhoods Saturday morning. Kite said the water was still rising. Carteret County spokeswoman Jo Ann Smith said the Bouge Sound was sending a few feet of water onto roads and into homes at Salter Path.
A coastal town official in North Carolina said witnesses believed a tornado spawned by Irene lifted the roof off the warehouse of a car dealership in Belhaven on Friday night and damaged a mobile home, an outbuilding and trees. At least two piers on the Outer Banks were wiped out.
Forecasters said the core of Irene would roll up the mid-Atlantic coast Saturday night and over southern New England on Sunday.
Hurricane warnings were issued from North Carolina to New York and farther north to the islands of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard off Massachusetts. Evacuation orders covered at least 2.3 million people, including 1 million in New Jersey, 315,000 in Maryland, 300,000 in North Carolina, 200,000 in Virginia and 100,000 in Delaware. Officials and experts said it was likely the largest number of people ever threatened by a single hurricane in the U.S.
U.S. airlines canceled at least 6,100 flights through Monday, grounding hundreds of thousands of passengers as the storm could strike major airports from Washington to Boston.
New York City ordered more than 300,000 people who live in flood-prone areas to leave, including Battery Park City at the southern tip of Manhattan, Coney Island and the beachfront Rockaways. But it was not clear how many would do it, how they would get out or where they would go. Most New Yorkers don't have a car.
The city said it would shut down the subways and buses at noon Saturday, only a few hours after the first rain is expected to fall. The transit system carries about 5 million people on an average weekday, fewer on weekends. It has been shut down several times before, including during a transit workers' strike in 2005 and after the Sept. 11 attacks a decade ago, but never for weather.
Aviation officials said they would close the five main New York City-area airports to arriving domestic and international flights beginning at noon on Saturday. Many departures also were canceled.
The airports are John F. Kennedy International, Newark Liberty International, LaGuardia, Stewart International and Teterboro.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said there was little authorities could do to force people to leave and warned: "But if you don't follow this, people may die."
Transit systems in New Jersey and Philadelphia also announced plans to shut down, and Washington declared a state of emergency.
After the Outer Banks, the next target for Irene was the Hampton Roads region of southeast Virginia, a jagged network of inlets and rivers that floods easily. Emergency officials have said the region is more threatened by storm surge, the high waves that accompany a storm, than wind. Gas stations there were low on fuel Friday, and grocery stores scrambled to keep water and bread on the shelves.
In Delaware, Gov. Jack Markell ordered an evacuation of coastal areas on the peninsula the state shares with Maryland and Virginia.
In Baltimore's Fells Point neighborhood, one of the city's oldest waterfront neighborhoods, people filled sandbags and placed them at the entrances to buildings. A few miles away at the Port of Baltimore, vehicles and cranes continued to unload huge cargo ships that were rushing to offload and get away from the storm.
Residents also were ordered to evacuate in Ocean City, Md. A steady rain fell Saturday morning on the city's boardwalk. A small amusement park was shut down and darkened, including a ride called the "hurricane." Businesses were boarded up, many painted with messages like "Irene don't be mean!"
Charlie Koetzle, 55, an Ocean City resident for the past decade, had come down to the boardwalk dressed in swim trunks and flip-flops to look at the ocean. While his neighbors and most everyone else had evacuated, Koetzle said he told authorities he wasn't leaving.
Koetzle said he was watching the weather channel and had stocked up on items to ride out the storm: soda, roast beef, peanut butter, tuna and nine packs of cigarettes. He also had a detective novel at the ready.
He said of the storm: "I always wanted to see one."
Jennifer Peltz reported from New York. Associated Press writers contributing to this report were Tim Reynolds and Christine Armario in Miami; Bruce Shipkowski in Surf City, N.J.; Geoff Mulvihill in Trenton, N.J.; Wayne Parry in Atlantic City, N.J.; Eric Tucker in Washington; Jessica Gresko in Ocean City, Md.; Martha Waggoner in Raleigh, N.C.; Mitch Weiss in Nags Head, N.C.; Alex Dominguez in Baltimore; Brock Vergakis in Virginia Beach, Va.; Jonathan Fahey in New York; and Seth Borenstein in Washington.