US East Coast braces for Hurricane Irene
Authorities from North Carolina to New York declare states of emergency as powerful Irene heads toward the US mainland.
Last Modified: 26 Aug 2011 01:49
State disaster management agencies are co-ordinating their efforts to tackle the damage by hurricane Irene [Reuters]

Authorities from North Carolina to New York declared states of emergency and thousands of people were ordered to higher ground as Irene packed winds of 170 kilometres per hour in its race toward the US mainland.

Thousands of people fled the US East Coast on Thursday as it braced for powerful Hurricane Irene, which destroyed hundreds of homes on small Bahamian islands as it tore over the sprawling archipelago in its way toward the US East Coast.

"There's hardly any excuse for people not to know that there's a hurricane out there," said Craig Fugate, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Irene's core was forecast to head north toward the United States, where it sent thousands of vacationers fleeing and threatened up to 65 million people from the Carolinas to New England. It would be the strongest to strike the East Coast in seven years.

By Thursday evening, Irene was packing winds of 185 kph and was centered about 855 kilometres south-west of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, the US National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida said.

It was traveling north-northwest at 22 kph. Center forecasters said strengthening of Irene was possible later Thursday and Friday.

"There's hardly any excuse for people not to know that there's a hurricane out there," said Craig Fugate, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"People need to understand that their time will be running out to be prepared and be ready," said Fugate.

The hurricane is set to slam into North Carolina on Saturday morning before roaring towards New York City, accompanied by an "extremely dangerous" storm surge that could raise water levels by as much as 3.4 metres, according to the National Weather Service.

Emergency personnel have warned people in the North Carolina coastal area of Dare County, that they would not be able to reach anyone who defied the mandatory evacuation by Friday morning.

"If you choose to stay, we can't issue a criminal citation, but you are leaving yourself wide open to extreme conditions," county official Kelly Davis said.

US military officers said that up to 98,000 members of the National Guard were available if needed.

It would be the second unusual scare in a week for the east coast after a rare 5.8 magnitude earthquake on Tuesday rattled major cities including Washington.

Federal authorities said they had stored millions of meals and bottles of water for people who use shelters for temporary accomodation as a growing number of counties ordered their residents to head inland.

In New York City, more than 1200 kilometres north of the storm Mayor Michael Bloomberg urged residents of low-lying areas to find a place to stay on higher ground ahead of Irene's anticipated arrival on Sunday.

"If you have a car and live in a low lying area, park it on a hill," Bloomberg told a press conference.

The city's social services agencies are ensuring homeless New Yorkers have access to shelter, the New York Police Department have moved 50 small boats to low-lying areas to be ready for rescue missions, and fire crews were clearing the city's drainage system to make room for the torrents of heavy rain expected.

Victims in the Caribbean

Puerto Rico, which also was hit by Irene, is struggling with heavy flooding and landslides. On Tuesday, a 62-year-old woman died after trying to cross a swollen river in her car near San Juan, police said.

In the Dominican Republic, flooding, rising rivers and mudslides prompted the government to evacuate nearly 38,000 people.

Authorities said a 40-year-old man was killed when floodwaters destroyed his home in Cambita, just west of Santo Domingo, and a 42-year-old Haitian migrant drowned in a surging river near the city of El Seibo.

An 18-year-old woman also died after being swept away by a river in the province of San Cristobal.

In neighboring Haiti, Irene's outer bands killed two girls in the northern coastal city of Port-de-Paix, triggered landslides and flooded cultivated fields earlier this week, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs.

One person was killed in Puerto Rico, where the storm became a hurricane on Monday. Puerto Rican authorities estimated the damage at more than $500 million.

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