After passing over the Bahamas on Thursday, the storm first fell on the U.S. coast in Florida, where its outermost bands swept in with bursts of wind and rain and a driving riptide.
The exodus from the Outer Banks began early Thursday after an evacuation order Wednesday night. Traffic on Route 168 crawled as lines of sport-utility vehicles with surfboards and fishing rods mounted on their roofs headed north from the barrier islands.
“My aunt and uncle are used to storms, but they got a bit worried about this one,” said Melissa Wallace of St. Louis, who had been vacationing at their Cape Hatteras beach house. “We just thought better safe than sorry.”
In the Washington region, there were warnings that people should be prepared for power outages as toppling trees take down electrical lines. Road crews were on alert to clear fallen trees and other wind-driven debris from highways.
More than 2,000 sandbags were being placed at Metro stations where water tends to come up over the curbs and flow down escalators. Metro crews also checked drains in tunnels, and some vehicles assigned to Metro supervisors were being equipped with chain saws to keep the transit system moving. The District and Alexandria offered free sandbags to residents.
O’Malley said the mandatory evacuation of Ocean City underscored the seriousness of the storm. “This is not a time to get out the camera and sit on the beach and take pictures of the waves,” he said.
Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) authorized local officials to issue mandatory evacuation orders.
“I reserve the right to direct and compel evacuation from the same and different areas and determine a different timetable both where local governing bodies have made such a determination and where local governing bodies have not made such a determination,” McDonnell said in a statement.
Pepco urged customers who need power for critical medical equipment to review emergency plans and be prepared for extended power outages. Dominion Virginia Power and BGE said repair crews were preparing for emergency restoration work over the next several days. Extra crews from other states were headed to the region to assist with recovery.
“This storm has serious potential to cause widespread damage,” said Rodney Blevins, Dominion’s vice president. “We are geared up to handle any situation as quickly and safely as possible. We are treating Hurricane Irene seriously, and we urge our customers to monitor local weather forecasts for changing conditions in order to remain safe.”
Staff writers Shyamantha Asokan, Dana Hedgpeth, Jenna Johnson, Anita Kumar, Michael E. Ruane and John Wagner contributed to this report.