Hurricane Irene Pounding Eastern US Coast

Posted August 27th, 2011 at 2:45 pm (UTC-5)
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Strong winds and heavy rains are pounding parts of the U.S. coastline, the opening salvo in Hurricane Irene's assault on the country's Eastern Seaboard.

Irene blasted ashore, making landfall in the eastern state of North Carolina early Saturday, lashing out with sustained winds of 140 kilometer per hour.

It is being blamed for toppling trees, flooding streets and knocking out power to tens of thousands of people. Several storm-related deaths have also been reported.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said the massive storm system is expected to continue moving north-northeast at about 24 kilometers per hour. Forecasters warned the category One storm would pass through the Washington area during the evening and overnight hours without losing any strength.

Earlier Saturday, U.S. President Barack Obama visited the command center where senior emergency officials have been coordinating the country's response. He warned the situation would be “touch and go” for the next 72 hours.

Also Saturday, 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. They said there is also a danger of tornados forming along the outer edge of the storm.

Forecasters say Irene's 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.

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 also shut down at midday.

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

Emergency officials have also been warning of the dangers to some of the skyscrapers and high-rise apartment buildings that dot the East Coast's population centers. The governor of the eastern state of New Jersey, which is in the projected path of the storm, made a special plea Saturday to some elderly residents who have so far refused to leave their high-rise apartment buildings, asking them to evacuate.

The American Red Cross said early Saturday about 13,000 people spent the overnight hours in shelters and that it was opening up dozens of additional shelters as Irene churned northward.

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 destroyed homes in The Bahamas.

Irene 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.