Hurricane Isabel ploughed into the US east coast with 100 mph winds causing at least three deaths and knocking out power to more than 2.5 million people.
The storm that had once threatened 160 mph winds and a 12ft storm surge rolled in to North Carolina at around midday yesterday with a 5ft surge and gusts that rattled plywood boards spray-painted, “Bring it on Izzy”.
The storm downed trees, snarled air traffic and knocked out electricity – more than 2 million customers were without power in North Carolina and south-eastern Virginia alone. More than 430,000 customers in Maryland, 78,000 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, while the storm was blamed for the deaths of two motorists in Virginia and Maryland.
National Hurricane Centre director Max Mayfield said fast-moving Isabel still poses a threat because of its dimensions – about the size of Italy – and its potential to bring 6 to 10 inches of rain and flooding to an east coast already sodden from one of the wettest summers in years.
“This is certainly not over for people experiencing Hurricane Isabel,” he said. “This hurricane will not be remembered for how strong it is. It will be remembered for how large it is.”
In Harlowe, a small North Carolina inland community around 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, he 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,” he said.
There were isolated areas of damage on the Outer Banks islands chain in North Carolina. The storm destroyed the 540ft Jeannette’s Pier in Nags Head and tore apart two beach houses, picking up the washer, dryer and refrigerator and carrying them about 500ft down the street.
Wind blew out the windows of a storm shelter near Elizabeth City, injuring five people hit by flying glass. In the community of Harlowe, just inland from the coast, rescue teams were dispatched after about 130 people were trapped by floodwaters, possibly in their own homes.
The storm spread rain across North Carolina and Virginia and into Maryland, Delaware and parts of West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Well over 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 northward, 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. Train services were halted south of Washington, and the Washington-area Metro system shut down all subway and bus services.
At 10pm UK time yesterday, Isabel was near Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, near the Virginia border. It was moving north west at around 20 mph, up from 14 mph 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.
Up to a foot of rain was possible in West Virginia’s hilly Eastern Panhandle.
President George W Bush granted North Carolina Governor Mike Easley’s request for a federal disaster declaration, ordering federal aid to the state. In anticipation of flooding and wind damage, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell issued a statewide “disaster emergency” declaration.
The governors of West Virginia, Maryland, Virginia and Delaware had earlier declared emergencies, and the governor of New Jersey planned a declaration.
Miss America pageant organisers went ahead with plans for their annual parade tonight in Atlantic City, New Jersey, hoping the boardwalk would escape damage.