Hurricane-force winds battered the North Carolina coast, knocking out power in places.
Officials in southeast Virginia prepared Saturday morning to close two key tunnels in the Norfolk and Hampton Roads area and they warned drivers to stay off the roads until the storm passed.
On Friday, tens of thousands of people began evacuating low-lying areas from the Carolinas to Manhattan as a vicious hurricane moved up the East Coast.
President Obama urged people to get out of the way of Hurricane Irene before he and his family abandoned their Martha’s Vineyard vacation to return to the White House.
“All indications point to this being a historic hurricane,” said Obama, who conferred with key response team officials and had a teleconference with East Coast governors Friday.
The storm was on a track that experts have feared for decades as they watched the rapid expansion of coastal resorts and housing developments in the lowlands behind them. They have worried that a storm tracking along the shore line, renewing its force over the warm Atlantic and then ripping with each rotation like a circular saw into coastal areas, could produce unprecedented devastation.
“It looks like the track of Irene is going to have a major impact along the East Coast starting in the Carolinas all the way up through Maine,”
said Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Irene weakened to a Category 1 storm — still with a strength of 90 mph — at 3 a.m. Saturday as it neared North Carolina coastline, the National Hurricane Center said.
The storm was expected to be over Cape Hatteras by 2 p.m. Saturday. By then, the outlying showers in its advance should be moving through Virginia and into the D.C. metro area. However, light rain began to fall on the lower parts of the Chesapeake Bay region and the beaches of Delaware before 6 a.m. Saturday, earlier than forecast.
The worst of it should pass over the area between nightfall and into Sunday morning, with the reaches between Interstate 95 and the beaches facing the most rain and highest winds.
By Sunday afternoon, if the current track holds, the storm will hit New York City. On Friday, plans were made to shut down the city’s subway system and, for the first time in memory, people were ordered to evacuate flood-prone coastal areas in Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and the financial district in Lower Manhattan.
On Friday, as people streamed from evacuated coastal areas in North Carolina, Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia, officials in the Washington region warned that power outages might last for days after the storm blows through.