Hurricane Irene Lashing US Coast

Posted August 27th, 2011 at 1:05 pm (UTC-5)
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Hurricane Irene is whipping parts of the eastern United States, lashing the coastline with sustained winds of 140 kilometer per hour.

The latest update from the National Hurricane Center put the center of the Category One storm over the Atlantic coast of the eastern U.S. state of North Carolina, moving north-northeast at about 24 kilometers per hour.

At a Saturday briefing, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano warned residents in the projected path of the storm to take all warnings seriously, saying “this is just the beginning.”

Napolitano said anyone in an area asked to evacuate needs to leave. And she said anyone not asked to evacuate should “hunker down” .

Forecasters say hurricane-force winds are being felt up to 150 kilometers away from the eye of the storm, and that tropical storm-force winds and whipping across an even greater area. They said there is also a danger of tornados forming along the outer edge of the storm.

Irene blasted its way onto shore early Saturday and has already toppled trees, flooded streets and knocked out power to tens of thousands of people. Its projected path is still expected to take it through some of the country's most densely populated areas, including Washington and New York.

Emergency officials warn they expect large waves, additional flooding and significant power outages up and down the eastern coastline as the storm churns northward. Already, U.S. news organizations are reporting a few, scattered deaths that are being blamed on the storm.

The American Red Cross says about 13,000 people spent the overnight hours in shelters and that it was opening up dozens of additional shelters.

Earlier Saturday, top U.S. emergency officials briefed U.S. President Barack Obama on the latest developments. Mr. Obama has previously warned that all indications point to Irene being an “historic” storm and that the nation must be “prepared for the worst.”

Mr. Obama returned to Washington late Friday, leaving his vacation in Massachusetts a day earlier than planned. He has directed agencies to ensure all the needed resources are available

National Hurricane Center Director Bill Read said Saturday forecasters do not expect Hurricane Irene to strengthen in the coming hours, though he cautioned damage could still be significant.

A hurricane warning remains in effect for New York and much of the eastern U.S. coast in what President Barack Obama is calling “an extremely dangerous and costly” storm.

In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has ordered the city's first ever mandatory evacuation. Some quarter-million people have been told to leave their homes in low-lying areas of the city, including the Wall Street financial district. And in another first, New York's entire public transit system, including subway trains and buses, will shut down Saturday. All three of New York's major airports will shut down starting at mid-day as well .

Airlines have already canceled hundreds of flights elsewhere on the east coast, and train service in parts of the eastern region have been suspended.

Irene is the first hurricane to seriously threaten the United States in three years. It has already killed at least one person in Puerto Rico and two in the Dominican Republic, and also destroyed homes in The Bahamas.

It also hits at the six-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, whose flooding killed more than 1,800 people and forced more than a million residents from their homes in the southeastern United States. The federal response to that disaster was widely criticized as slow and mismanaged, and U.S. officials are determined to be prepared this time..

The threat of the hurricane also led organizers in Washington to postpone the dedication ceremony of a memorial to civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.