NEW YORK - (AP) - A weakening but still dangerous Hurricane Ireneshut down New York and menaced other cities more accustomed tosnowstorms than tropical storms as it steamed up the East Coast onSaturday, unloading a foot of rain on North Carolina and Virginiaand 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 aneerie quiet. Washington braced for the onslaught, too, as didPhiladelphia, the New Jersey shore and the Boston metropolitanarea. Packing wind gusts of 115 mph, the hurricane had an enormouswingspan - 500 miles - and threatened a swath of the nationinhabited by 65 million people.
The hurricane stirred up seven-foot waves, and forecasterswarned of storm-surge danger on the coasts of Virginia andDelaware, along the Jersey Shore and in New York Harbor and LongIsland Sound. Across the Northeast, drenched by rain this summer,the ground is already saturated, raising the risk of flooding aswell as the danger of trees falling onto homes and power lines.
Irene made its official landfall just after first light nearCape Lookout, N.C., at the southern end of the Outer Banks, theribbon of land that bows out into the Atlantic Ocean. While it wastoo early to assess the full extent of damage, shorefront hotelsand houses were lashed with waves, two piers were destroyed and atleast one hospital was forced to run on generator power.
"Things are banging against the house," Leon Reasor said as herode out the storm in the town of Buxton, N.C. "I just hatehurricanes."
Eastern North Carolina got 10 to 14 inches of rain, according tothe National Weather Service. Virginia's Hampton Roads area wasdrenched with at least nine inches, with 16 reported in some spots.
By late Saturday night, the storm had weakened to sustainedwinds of 80 mph, down from 100 mph on Friday. That made it aCategory 1, the least threatening on a 1-to-5 scale, and barelystronger than a tropical storm.
It was moving north-northeast at 16 mph, slightly faster than ithad been earlier in the day, giving it somewhat less opportunity todump on any particular area.
Nevertheless, it was still considered highly dangerous, capableof causing ruinous flooding across much of the East Coast with acombination of storm surge, high tides and 6 to 12 inches of rain.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett warned that the state will notnecessarily be out of danger once the storm has passed: "Therivers may not crest until Tuesday or Wednesday. This isn't just a24-hour event."
As of Saturday evening, Irene was hugging the U.S. coastline ona path that could scrape every state along the Eastern Seaboard. EdRappaport, deputy director of the National Hurricane Center inFlorida, said it would be a "low-end hurricane, high-end tropicalstorm" by the time it crossed the New York City area late Sundaymorning.
The storm is so large that areas far from Irene's center aregoing to be feeling strong winds and getting large amounts of rain,he said.
"It is a big, windy, rainy event," he said.
The deaths blamed on Irene included two children, an 11-year-oldboy in Virginia killed when a tree crashed through his roof and aNorth Carolina child who died in a crash at an intersection wheretraffic lights were out. In addition, a North Carolina man waskilled by a flying tree limb, a passenger died when a tree fell onin a car in Virginia, and a surfer and another beachgoer in Floridawere killed in heavy waves.
It was the first hurricane to make landfall in the continentalUnited States since 2008, and came almost six years to the dayafter Katrina ravaged New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005. Experts guessedthat no other hurricane in American history had threatened as manypeople.
North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue said Irene inflictedsignificant damage along her state's coast, but that some areaswere unreachable because of high water or downed power lines.
"Folks are cut off in parts of North Carolina, and obviously we'renot going to get anybody to do an assessment until it's safe," shesaid.
At least 2.3 million people were under orders to move tosomewhere safer, though it was unclear how many obeyed or, in somecases, how they could.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told 6,500 troops from allbranches of the military to get ready to pitch in on relief work,and President Barack Obama visited the Federal Emergency ManagementAgency's command center in Washington and offered moral support.
"It's going to be a long 72 hours," he said, "and obviously alot of families are going to be affected."
In New York, authorities undertook the herculean job of bringingthe city to a halt. The subway began shutting down at noon, thefirst time the system was closed because of a natural disaster.
On Wall Street, sandbags were placed around subway grates nearthe East River because of fear of flooding. Tarps were spread overother grates. Construction stopped throughout the city, and workersat the site of the World Trade Center dismantled a crane andsecured equipment.
The city was far quieter than on an average Saturday. In some ofthe busiest parts of Manhattan, it was possible to cross a majoravenue without looking, and the waters of New York Harbor, whichmight normally be churning from boat traffic, were quiet. About370,000 people living in low-lying areas of the city, mostly inLower Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, were under orders to clearout.
"The time to leave is right now," Mayor Michael Bloomberg saidat an outdoor news conference at Coney Island, his shirt soakedfrom rain.
The New York area's major airports - LaGuardia, Kennedy andNewark - waved in their last arriving flights around noon. TheGiants and Jets postponed their preseason NFL game, the Metspostponed two baseball games, and Broadway theaters were dark.
New York has seen only a few hurricanes in the past 200 years.The Northeast is much more used to snowstorms - including theblizzard last December, when Bloomberg was criticized for a slowresponse.
Airlines said 9,000 flights were canceled, including 3,000 onSaturday. The number of passengers affected could easily bemillions because so many flights make connections on the EastCoast.
Greyhound suspended bus service between Richmond, Va., andBoston. Amtrak canceled trains in the Northeast for Sunday.
In Philadelphia, Mayor Michael Nutter declared a state ofemergency, the first for the city since 1986, when racial tensionswere running high. "We are trying to save lives and don't havetime for silliness," he said.
The storm arrived in Washington just days after an earthquakedamaged some of the capital's most famous structures, including theWashington Monument. Irene could test Washington's ability toprotect its national treasures and its poor.
In New Jersey, the Oyster Creek nuclear plant, just a few milesfrom the coast, shut down as a precaution as Irene closed in. AndBoston's transit authority said all bus, subway and commuter railservice would be suspended all day Sunday.