Hurricane Irene Bears Down on North Carolina Coast

Hurricane Irene bore down on the U.S. with Category 1-force winds of 90 miles (150 kilometers) an hour, threatening a storm surge as warnings were posted from North Carolina to southern New England, including New York City.

Irene weakened from Category 2 as it moved toward the coast of North Carolina on its path to the Northeast, where New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered the first mandatory evacuation in the city’s history.

The center of Irene is now expected to make landfall in North Carolina in the next few hours, the National Hurricane Center in Miami said in an advisory at 5 a.m. New York time. The storm was about 35 miles south of Cape Lookout, North Carolina, and 95 miles south-southwest of Cape Hatteras. Irene was a Category 3 storm two days earlier.

“The center of Irene will make landfall in eastern North Carolina during the next few hours and then move across eastern North Carolina,” the center said. “The hurricane is forecast to move over the mid-Atlantic coast tonight and move over southern New England on Sunday.”

While some weakening is expected after the storm reaches the coast of North Caroline, Irene is forecast to remain a hurricane as it moves near or over the mid-Atlantic states and New England, the center said.

More than 65 million people, or about one in five Americans, from North Carolina to Maine may be in the course of the hurricane, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. About 3.5 million live in the North Carolina counties in the storm’s path, according to Governor Bev Perdue.

Potential Losses

The storm may cause $6.5 billion in overall economic losses, according to estimates by Kinetic Analysis Corp. If the storm takes a more easterly track and is less intense than forecast, the company expects insured losses of $3.1 billion.

President Barack Obama signed federal emergency declarations for North Carolina, New York, Virginia and Massachusetts, authorizing the Homeland Security Department and Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster response and mobilize resources.

The president was cutting short his vacation in Martha’s Vineyard a day early, and was due to return to Washington last night.

New York

The Port of Authority of New York and New Jersey plans to close its five airports to all arriving passenger flights beginning at noon today.

John F. Kennedy International, Newark Liberty International, Stewart International, LaGuardia and Teterboro airports will remain open for departing flights, the port authority said in an e-mailed statement yesterday.

The New York Stock Exchange may close for trading if customers can’t make it to their desks, Louis Pastina, senior vice president for NYSE Euronext, said in a Bloomberg Television interview yesterday.

“The biggest issue with respect to U.S. damage remains how much the storm is weakened after hitting North Carolina, and the exact track across the Northeast,” Chuck Watson, Kinetic’s director of research and development, said in an e-mail. “It does look like long-term economic impacts to the NYC area are increasingly unlikely.”

‘Storm Surge’

An “extremely dangerous storm surge” may occur along the North Carolina coast, including Albemarle and Pamlico sounds, according to the hurricane center. A storm tide will raise water levels by as much as 6 to 11 feet above ground level in the hurricane-warning area in North Carolina, the center said.

“The surge will be accompanied by large, destructive and life-threatening waves,” the center said.

The threat of storm surge rushing ashore in New York prompted Bloomberg to order 270,000 residents of low-lying areas of the city, including Battery Park City and Coney Island, to leave their homes. The mayor is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.

Irene has the storm surge of a much more powerful hurricane, said Jeff Masters, co-founder of Weather Underground Inc. in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Irene is actually pushing the surge of a Category 4 storm into North Carolina, he said.

The impact with land in North Carolina will weaken the surge, Masters said. By the time it makes an expected landfall on New York’s Long Island, it may still have a more powerful surge than its wind-force status would indicate, he said.

Six to 10 inches of rain may accompany the storm from eastern North Carolina into New England, with as much as 15 inches in some isolated areas, the center said.

Flooding

“These rains could cause widespread flooding and life- threatening flash floods,” it said in the advisory. Governor Chris Christie ordered all rail service in New Jersey suspended as of noon today. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said the Metropolitan Transit Authority will close New York’s subways, buses and trains at noon. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey will suspend all PATH services starting at noon, according to a statement.

Irene whipped the Bahamas on Aug. 25. Losses on the island are likely to be between $500 million and $1.1 billion, according to an estimate by AIR Worldwide in Boston.

Gasoline advanced to the most in more than three weeks on Aug. 25 on speculation that Irene may disrupt East Coast refinery production and fuel distribution.

Irene has forced evacuations along the coasts of New Jersey, Maryland and North Carolina and prompted governors of states from North Carolina to Massachusetts to declare states of emergency.

Warnings

Hurricane warnings are posted from Little River Inlet, North Carolina, to Sagamore Beach in Massachusetts, including New York City, according to the hurricane center. The last hurricane to prompt a warning in New York was 1985’s Gloria, the center said.

Irene’s hurricane-strength winds stretch 90 miles from its center, about the distance from Philadelphia to New York. Tropical storm-force winds of at least 39 mph extend 290 miles from the core.

The storm is expected to weaken after it hits North Carolina, according to forecasters.

“It is going to hug the coast and that is going to take a lot of punch out of the storm,” said Arthur DeGaetano, professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell University.

Gary Best, a meteorologist at Hometown Forecast Services in Nashua, New Hampshire, agreed.

Irene may not be a hurricane by the time it reaches New York, he said.

“As it moves up the coast, half of its circulation is going to be over land,” he said. “It’s probably not going to be a historical storm but it is going to cause some damage.”

Northeast

The Northeast is experiencing higher tides because of a new moon, so a storm surge now will be higher than it would at other times of the month, said Michael Schlacter, chief meteorologist at Weather 2000 Inc. in New York.

In addition, the storm will be striking Long Island and southern New England perpendicular to the coast, which means more water will be pushed on shore, he said.

“The biggest impacts obviously will be the storm surge,” Schlacter said.

Across New York City, winds may reach 50 to 60 mph as the storm passes, said Tom Kines, senior expert meteorologist with AccuWeather Inc. in State College, Pennsylvania.

Long Island may have wind gusts as intense as 100 mph along with 5 to 9 inches of rain.

Kines said some people may dismiss winds that are less than 74 mph, the threshold for hurricane strength. They shouldn’t, he said. The rain will loosen the roots of trees and hours of high winds can push them over, Kines said.

“A 70 mile-per-hour wind can do a lot of damage,” Kines said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian K. Sullivan in Boston at bsullivan10@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Tighe at ptighe@bloomberg.net

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