Hurricane Irene weakened as it moved toward the coast of North Carolina on a path to the Northeast, where New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered the first mandatory evacuation in the city’s history.
Irene’s top winds dropped to 100 miles (161 kilometers) per hour, down from 110 mph earlier today, as it churned about 300 miles south-southwest of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Irene is a Category 2 storm on the five-step Saffir Simpson scale, down from a Category 3 yesterday.
“Little change in strength is forecast before Irene reaches the coast of North Carolina,” the hurricane center said in an advisory at about 2 p.m. New York time. While some weakening is likely after that, Irene “is expected to remain a hurricane as it moves along the Mid-Atlantic coast Sunday.”
Irene may cause $10 billion in overall economic losses, according to estimates by Kinetic Analysis Corp. A more easterly track and less intensity puts the company’s projected insured losses at $5.6 billion.
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 founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
Governor Chris Christie ordered all rail service in New Jersey suspended as of noon tomorrow. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said the Metropolitan Transit Authority will close New York’s subways, buses and trains at noon.
Irene whipped the Bahamas yesterday. Losses on the island are likely to be between $500 million and $1.1 billion, according to an estimate by AIR Worldwide in Boston.
“The storm itself is a pretty big storm and obviously the number of people that get affected by this are going to be in the millions,” said Tom Kines, senior expert meteorologist with AccuWeather Inc. in State College, Pennsylvania. “I suspect a good chunk of southern New England is also going to get hit pretty hard by Irene, maybe not as hard as the Outer Banks” of North Carolina.
Irene has forced evacuations along the coasts of New Jersey and North Carolina and prompted governors of states from North Carolina to Connecticut to declare states of emergency.
Hurricane warnings are posted from Little River Inlet, North Carolina, to Sandy Hook, New Jersey. A hurricane watch has been posted from the Merrimack River in Massachusetts south to Sandy Hook, according to the hurricane center.
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.
More than 65 million people, or about one in five Americans, from North Carolina to Maine may be in the way 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.
The storm may weaken after it hits North Carolina.
“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.
“The good news is that the storm is weakening and weakening all afternoon,” Best said. It 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.”
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.
President Barack Obama signed a federal emergency declaration for North Carolina, authorizing the Homeland Security Department and Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster response and mobilize resources.
Gasoline advanced to the most in more than three weeks yesterday on speculation that Irene may disrupt East Coast refinery production and fuel distribution.
Irene could produce rainfall of 6 to 10 inches and as much as 15 inches in isolated areas from eastern North Carolina to southeastern Virginia and along the Eastern Seaboard from Delaware and New Jersey to southeastern New York, Long Island and western Massachusetts by Aug. 29, the NHC said.
Across New York City, winds may reach 50 to 60 mph as the storm passes, Kines said. 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. “These winds can do a lot of damage.”
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