Isabel pounds the United States

Hurricane Isabel plowed into North Carolina’s Outer Banks with 160 kph winds and pushed its way up the Eastern Seaboard, weakening to a tropical storm by evening but not before swamping roads and knocking out power to more than 2,5-million people.

Isabel was blamed for at least four traffic deaths, along with two deaths from falling trees, and the electrocution of a utility employee.

The storm that had once threatened 257kph winds and a 3,6m storm surge rolled in around midday just south of isolated Ocracoke Island with a 1,5m surge and gusts that rattled plywood boards spray-painted “Bring it on Izzy”.

“A lot of trees are down—there’s one down across the garage,” Rudy Austin said as he looked out on his yard in Ocracoke surrounded by a knee-deep soup of sea water and debris. “There’s a lot of stuff floating around: boards and buoys and boxes and young ‘uns’ plastic toys.”

The storm downed trees, snarled air traffic and knocked out electricity—more than two million customers were without power in North Carolina and southeastern Virginia alone.

More than 430 000 customers in Maryland, 120 000 in the District of Columbia and 10 000 in New Jersey also lost power.

In North Carolina, a utility employee was electrocuted while restoring power, and in Virginia two people were killed by falling trees, one of which toppled on to a house. The storm was also blamed for the deaths of three motorists in Virginia and one in Maryland.

Isabel’s top sustained wind eased to about 105kph late on Thursday evening and was expected to weaken further.

National Hurricane Centre Director Max Mayfield said fast-moving Isabel still posed a threat because of its dimensions—about the size of Italy—and its potential to bring 15cm to 25cm of rain and flooding to an East Coast already sodden from one of the wettest summers in years.

The storm spread rain across North Carolina and Virginia and into Maryland, Delaware and parts of West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

In Harlowe, a small community about 40km inland from the Outer Banks, about 30 to 40 homes were destroyed, either by winds, falling trees or flooding, said Jeremy Brown, chief of Harlowe’s volunteer fire department.

Firefighters rescued a mother and her two children who were stranded by the flood waters, Brown said.
But the flooding receded quickly, said resident Joe Fernandez, who watched the water rise over his street and yard.

“It was like a toilet flushing. It just came up and went down,” Fernandez said.

On the Outer Banks, the storm destroyed the 162m Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head and at least two beach houses, where the storm surge picked up a washer, dryer and refrigerator and carried them about 150m down the street.

At 3am GMT, Isabel was about 56km west of Richmond, Virginia, moving northwest at about 37 kph, up from 23kph on Wednesday evening when it approached the coast.

Isabel was expected to move north across Virginia and cut through western Pennsylvania and western New York state before dissipating in Canada by Saturday.

President George Bush declared major disasters in North Carolina and Virginia, ordering federal aid to both states. The governors of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey and Delaware declared state emergencies.

More than 1 500 flights were cancelled at airports in the major Eastern cities, said David Stempler, president of the Air Travellers Association. As the storm moved north, all flights to and from the Washington metropolitan area’s airports were likely to be cancelled, he said.

The federal government shut down in Washington. Amtrak halted service south of Washington, and the Washington-area Metro system shut down all subway and bus service.

Miss America pageant organisers went ahead with plans for their annual parade on Friday night in Atlantic City, New Jersey, hoping the boardwalk would escape damage.—Sapa-AP

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