NAGS HEAD, N.C. —Weaker but still menacing, Hurricane Irene knocked out power and piers in North Carolina, clobbered Virginia with wind and churned up the coast Saturday to confront cities more accustomed to snowstorms than tropical storms. New York City emptied its streets and subways and waited with an eerie quiet.
With most of its transportation machinery shut down, the Eastern Seaboard spent the day nervously watching the storm's march across a swath of the nation inhabited by 65 million people. The hurricane had an enormous diameter — 500 miles, its outer reaches stretching from the Carolinas to Cape Cod — and packed wind gusts of 115 mph.
Almost a million homes and businesses were without power. While it was too early to assess the full threat, Irene was blamed for nine deaths.
The hurricane stirred up 7-foot waves, and forecasters warned of storm-surge danger on the coasts of Virginia and Delaware, along the Jersey Shore and in New York Harbor and Long Island Sound. In the Northeast, drenched by rain this summer, the ground is already saturated, raising the risk of flooding.
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Irene made its official landfall just after first light near Cape Lookout, N.C., at the southern end of the Outer Banks, the ribbon of land that bows out into the Atlantic Ocean. Shorefront hotels and houses were lashed with waves. Two piers were destroyed, and at least one hospital was forced to run on generator power.
"Things are banging against the house," Leon Reasor said as he rode out the storm in the town of Buxton. "I hope it doesn't get worse, but I know it will. I just hate hurricanes."
By evening, the storm had weakened to sustained winds of 80 mph, down from 100 mph on Friday. That made it a Category 1, the least threatening on a 1-to-5 scale, and barely stronger than a tropical storm. Its center was positioned almost exactly where North Carolina meets Virginia at the Atlantic, and it was picking up speed, moving at 16 mph — up from 13 mph — as it re-emerged over the Atlantic. A hurricane warning had been lifted south of Surf City, N.C.
After the Outer Banks, the storm strafed Virginia with rain and strong wind. It covered the Hampton Roads region, which is thick with inlets and rivers and floods easily, and chugged north toward Chesapeake Bay. Shaped like a massive inverted comma, the storm had a thick northern flank that covered all of Delaware, almost all of Maryland and the eastern half of Virginia.
The deaths included two children, an 11-year-old boy in Virginia killed when a tree crashed through his roof and a North Carolina child who died in a crash at an intersection where traffic lights were out.
In addition, a North Carolina man was killed by a flying tree limb, a passenger died when a tree fell on in a car in Virginia, and a surfer in Florida was killed in heavy waves.
It was the first hurricane to make landfall in the continental United States since 2008, and came almost six years to the day after Katrina ravaged New Orleans. Experts guessed that no other hurricane in American history had threatened as many people.
At least 2.3 million were under orders to move to somewhere safer, although it was unclear how many obeyed or, in some cases, how they could.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told 6,500 troops from all branches of the military to get ready to pitch in on relief work, and President Obama visited the Federal Emergency Management Agency's command center in Washington and offered moral support.
"It's going to be a long 72 hours," he said, "and obviously a lot of families are going to be affected."
Weaker than feared
For all the concern, there were early signs that the storm might not be as bad as feared. Some forecasts had it making landfall as a Category 3 storm and perhaps reaching New York as a Category 2.
"Isabel got 10 inches from coming in the house, and this one ain't no Isabel," said Chuck Owen of Poquoson, Va., who has never abandoned his house to heed an evacuation order. He was referring to Hurricane Isabel, which chugged through in 2003.
Still, Owen put his pickup on a small pyramid of cinder blocks to protect it from the storm tide, which had already begun surging through the saltwater marshes that stand between Poquoson and Chesapeake Bay.
Airlines said 9,000 flights were canceled, including 3,000 on Saturday.
Greyhound suspended bus service between Richmond, Va., and Boston. Amtrak canceled trains in the Northeast for today.
The power losses covered 900,000 homes and businesses and were heavily concentrated in Virginia and North Carolina. Dominion Resources reported almost 600,000 customers without power and Progress Energy 260,000, with much of the outages in Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach, N.C.