NEW YORK — A weakened but still dangerous Hurricane Irene shut down New York and menaced other cities more accustomed to snowstorms than tropical storms as it steamed up the East Coast on Saturday, unloading a foot of rain on North Carolina and Virginia and knocking out power to nearly 1.9 million homes and businesses. At least six people were killed.
New York emptied its streets and subways and waited with an eerie quiet. Washington braced for the onslaught, too, as did Philadelphia, the New Jersey shore and the Boston metropolitan area. The hurricane had an enormous diameter — 500 miles — and threatened a swath of the nation inhabited by 65 million people.
The hurricane stirred up seven-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. Across the Northeast, drenched by rain this summer, the ground is already saturated, raising the risk of flooding as well as the danger of trees falling onto homes and power lines.
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. While it was too early to assess the full extent of damage, shorefront hotels and houses were lashed with waves, two piers were destroyed and at least one hospital was forced to run on generator power.
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"Things are banging against the house," Leon Reasor said as he rode out the storm in the town of Buxton, N.C. "I just hate hurricanes."
Eastern North Carolina got 10 to 14 inches of rain, according to the National Weather Service. Virginia's Hampton Roads area was drenched with at least nine inches, with 16 reported in some spots.
By late Saturday night, the storm had 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.
Nevertheless, it was still considered highly dangerous, capable of causing ruinous flooding across much of the East Coast with a combination of storm surge, high tides and 6 to 12 inches of rain.
Irene was moving north-northeast at 16 mph, slightly faster than it had been earlier in the day, giving it somewhat less opportunity to dump on any particular area. But a typical hurricane would be moving much faster, 25 to 30 mph, said senior hurricane specialist Stacy Stewart of the National Hurricane Center.
Moving slowly over the relatively colder water could weaken the storm, but Stewart said Irene will still likely be a hurricane when it makes landfall in the New York area around noon today.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett warned that the state will not necessarily be out of danger once the storm has passed: "The rivers may not crest until Tuesday or Wednesday. This isn't just a 24-hour event."
As of Saturday evening, Irene was hugging the U.S. coastline on a path that could scrape every state along the Eastern Seaboard. Ed Rappaport, deputy director of the National Hurricane Center in Florida, said it would be a "low-end hurricane, high-end tropical storm" by the time it crossed the New York City area.
The storm is so large that areas far from Irene's center are going to be feeling strong winds and getting large amounts of rain, he said.
"It is a big, windy, rainy event," he said.
Children among dead
The deaths blamed on Irene 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 and another beachgoer in Florida were killed in heavy waves.
North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue said Irene inflicted significant damage along her state's coast, but that some areas were unreachable because of high water or downed power lines. "Folks are cut off in parts of North Carolina, and obviously we're not going to get anybody to do an assessment until it's safe," she said.
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."
In Philadelphia, Mayor Michael Nutter declared a state of emergency, the first for the city since 1986, when racial tensions were running high. "We are trying to save lives and don't have time for silliness," he said.