Obama declares emergency for North Carolina

U.S. President Barack Obama has declared an emergency for North Carolina as Hurricane Irene bears towards the East Coast after battering the Bahamas.

Federal aid authorized for state in path of Hurricane Irene

A man walks along a seaside park as Hurricane Irene passes to the east of Nassau on New Providence Island in the Bahamas. Irene is pounding the Bahamas as a Category 3 hurricane. (Lynne Sladky/Associated Press)

U.S. President Barack Obama has declared an emergency for North Carolina as Hurricane Irene bears towards the East Coast after battering the Bahamas.

Obama issued the state of emergency for North Carolina Thursday night ahead of a forecast that the Category 3 storm will thrash the state on the weekend, bringing with it 185 km/h winds and 30 centimetres of rainfall. There have been fears that the storm could be upgraded to a Category 4 before hitting North Carolina.

The declaration means federal aid will be opened up to supplement state and local responses to the storm. It also means the state is eligible for federal funds to help with cleanup and other needs after Irene makes landfall.

In the storm's path are up to 65 million people along the shoreline from North Carolina to New England.

Earlier Thursday, Hurricane Irene damaged hundreds of homes on small Bahamian islands but largely spared the capital, Nassau, as it tore over the sprawling archipelago in its way toward the U.S. East Coast as a major Category 3 storm.

As the destruction was being assessed in the Caribbean, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg warned residents living in low-lying areas on Thursday to seek shelter on higher ground possibly by Friday, before the storm is forecast to pound the area. Bloomberg told reporters the mass transit system may have to be shut down on Saturday.

If the storm remains on its current path, Bloomberg said he would order 270,000 people moved by Saturday. He has ordered nursing homes and five hospitals in low-lying areas evacuated beginning Friday.

New York has become the fifth U.S. state so far to declare a state of emergency due to the imminent threat of Irene, joining the likes of New Jersey, North Carolina, Maryland and Virginia.

There were no immediate reports on Thursday of deaths in the Bahamas from the Category 3 hurricane, but some small settlements reported up to 90 per cent of their homes damaged while assessments from other islands were not in because telephone lines were down.

Authorities and residents were clearly pleased that Irene had shifted course and largely skirted populous New Providence island, which is home to more than 200,000 people and some of the most famous resorts in the Bahamas. Irene left a mess of scattered debris, toppled trees and minor flooding but no major damage.

CBC meteorologist Johanna Wagstaffe has been following Hurricane Irene:

Irene is still a Category 3 storm with sustained winds of 185 km/h. Some strengthening is still expected so Category 4 is possible later Thursday.

It's pounding the northeast Bahamas right now — we are reading winds gusts of over 100 km/h at Nassau right now.

The tracking update indicates it still looks like the hurricane will make landfall Saturday evening at the N.C./Virginia border.

It's expected to weaken to a Category 2 hurricane as it makes second landfall Sunday overnight in Massachusetts/N.Y.

At this point it appears the Canadian track for Irene is it will hit eastern Quebec/Western New Brunswick.

"For the last three or four major hurricanes that I can recall, we've managed to skirt the eye of the hurricane," said Charlton Knowles, who runs a pizza restaurant in Nassau. "If the only things we are having are downed trees and pickets fences, then it's just a severe storm and that's all."

Concern for other islands

Downtown Nassau with its colorful limestone buildings was largely unscathed, but the Straw Market, a well-known shopping spot for tourists, did not survive the night. The canvas roof was torn and the metal frame was damaged, leaving about 600 craft stalls exposed to the wind and rain.Nassau residents expressed concern about fellow Bahamians in Eleuthera and other islands.   

About 90 per cent of the homes in two settlements known as Lovely Bay and Chesters on Acklins Islands were destroyed and no longer inhabitable, said Gayle Outten-Moncur, the operating officer of the Emergency Management Agency in the Bahamas. A total of about 100 homes were damaged, she said.   

On the island of Mayaguana, where roughly 250 people live, about 40 homes were damaged, she said.  

There are also reports of extensive damage on Cat Island, Long Island and Eleuthera, but authorities have not been able to complete full assessments and conditions were still dangerous on Thursday.

Few casualties predicted

Irene is only the third storm since 1866 to cross the entire length of the island chain, and Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham said the country was bracing for extensive damage to buildings and infrastructure. But he predicted few casualties overall.

"As a general statement we do a fair job of managing hurricanes so personal injuries, we hope, will not be substantial," he said in an interview with The Associated Press.   

The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida, warned Thursday that an "extremely dangerous storm surge will raise water levels by as much as 7 to 11 feet (2 to 3 metres) above normal tide levels over the Bahamas." It said Irene is expected to dump from 15 to 30 centimetres of rain on the islands.   

Irene's core was forecast to continue moving over the northwestern Bahamas on Thursday before heading north toward the U.S.   

Hurricane watches were issued from North Carolina to New Jersey and warnings for the entire North Carolina coast to the Virginia border. Maximum sustained winds for Irene were still at 185 km/h but forecasters expect it to gather strength as it hits the warm Atlantic waters.

Storm expected Saturday in North Carolina

In Virginia, the U.S. Navy ordered the Second Fleet to leave Norfolk Naval Station to keep ships safe from the approaching hurricane.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida, said it is expected to dump from 15 to 30 centimetres of rain on the islands.

Irene's core was forecast to continue moving over the northwestern Bahamas on Thursday before heading north toward the United States, where it sent thousands of vacationers fleeing. It would be the strongest to strike the East Coast in seven years.

Irene's projected path has it bringing misery to Washington, New York and Boston.

8 injuries in Florida blamed on storm

Authorities said Thursday the rough ocean churned up by the outer bands of Hurricane Irene have caused at least eight injuries and a near drowning in South Florida.

Palm Beach County officials say eight people were out on a jetty off Boynton Beach Inlet when a wave knocked them over. They say one person was taken to a hospital. Seven others were treated at the scene.

The former chief of the National Hurricane Center called it one of his three worst possible situations.

"One of my greatest nightmares was having a major hurricane go up the whole Northeast Coast," Max Mayfield, the centre's retired director, told The Associated Press.

He said the damage will probably climb into billions of dollars: "This is going to have an impact on the United States economy."

Map tracking the path of Hurricane Irene, with the cone showing the probable path of the storm centre. (U.S. National Hurricane Centre/NOAA)

It is a massive storm, with tropical-force winds extending almost twice as far as normal, about the same size as Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005.

"It's not going to be a Katrina, but it's serious," said MIT meteorology professor Kerry Emanuel. "People have to take it seriously."

Hurricanes are rare in the U.S. Northeast because the region's cooler seas tend to weaken storms as they approach, and they have to take a narrow track to strike New York without first hitting other parts of the coast and weakening there.

On Thursday in North Carolina, three coastal counties issued evacuation orders covering more than 200,000 people, including tourists and full-time residents.