NAGS HEAD, N.C. — Hurricane Isabel closed in on North Carolina's Outer Banks on Wednesday with 105-mph winds and the potential for up to a foot of rain, threatening to cause ruinous flooding across a huge swath of the already soggy East.
Isabel had weakened to a Category 2 hurricane from a Category 5, 160-mph monster but was still expected to be dangerous when it hit the barrier islands this morning with a storm surge of up to 11 feet.
More than 230,000 people in North Carolina and Virginia were urged to move to higher ground, leaving the vulnerable Outer Banks mostly evacuated. Evacuation orders were also posted for low-lying inland areas and islands of the Chesapeake Bay, which could get a 7-foot surge.
After days of warnings, anxiety over the onrushing hurricane finally appeared to take hold, even among longtime Outer Banks residents who pride themselves on their ability to ride out big storms.
"There's probably no one in the area within a quarter-mile," said Jason Ribeiro.
Ribeiro had planned to play a gig with his Nags Head rockabilly band Wednesday night. But with most of his neighbors gone and bars closed under an evacuation order, he packed his sport-utility vehicle with five guitars and headed out onto a mainland road virtually clear after days of hurricane warnings.
"That five-day thing that they have on the Weather Channel, I mean, take a look around," he said. "There's nobody here."
Isabel was expected to strengthen slightly as it approached the coast, and forecasters said its remnants could hit Quebec by Saturday.
A hurricane warning was in effect from Cape Fear in southern North Carolina to the Virginia-Maryland line. Tropical storm warnings extended from South Carolina to New Jersey.
North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley said Isabel's landfall could come as late as midmorning, which would pair the storm surge with high tide. "That's a recipe for high damage," he said.
In the nation's capital, federal and district offices were ordered closed and Congress canceled votes so members could return home. Bus and subway service there will be suspended Thursday morning as a precaution.
Metro chief executive Richard White said officials did not want to "risk having customers get blown in front of trains or onto the electrified tracks." White said they also were concerned about people at bus stops being blown in front of vehicles or being hit by flying objects.
The Air Force moved one of the jumbo 747s known as Air Force One from Andrews Air Force Base, Md., to Robins Air Force Base in Warner Robins, Ga., said White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan. A 757 sometimes used by the president was also flown to Georgia as a precaution, she said.
For many in Isabel's path, an area stretching from the Carolinas to the fields of Pennsylvania and the hollows of West Virginia, one of the rainiest summers in years could get considerably worse.
More than 9 inches of rain was forecast for parts of Pennsylvania, and National Hurricane Center director Max Mayfield said heavy rain could extend all the way to New England.
Gov. Bob Wise declared a state of emergency for all of West Virginia, anticipating heavy flooding in the Potomac River basin. He also ordered highway crews and National Guardsmen to areas most in danger from Isabel. Up to 12 inches was possible in Morgan County.
Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner also declared a state of emergency, saying she was particularly concerned about northern communities that flooded Monday. About 8,000 people, mostly coastal residents, were ordered to leave.
Pennsylvania officials said the ground is so sodden that it would take as little as 2 to 4 inches of rain to cause rivers and creeks to spill their banks.
John and Rita Razze's home in Chadds Ford, Pa., was flooded with several inches of water when rain earlier this week caused the nearby Brandywine River to overflow. Now, with everything pumped out and cleaned up, he worried that the ground would be unable to absorb any of Isabel's rain.
He left work Wednesday afternoon to pull his heater out of the basement and take everything he could carry to the second floor. Furniture and anything else that was too big to move was propped up on chairs.
"Usually we stay here and wait it out. This time, we're going to get the heck out of here," he said. "Once the water starts coming in, you can't stop it. There's nothing you can do but watch it."
At historic Jamestown, Va., archaeologists blanketed a dig of the first permanent English settlement in America with a tarp and anchored it with sandbags. More than 500,000 artifacts from Jamestown Island are stored in a storm-proof vault.
In Kill Devil Hills, N.C., museum curators prepared to move artifacts and photographs collected for the centennial celebration of the Wright brothers' first flight.
In the middle of Chesapeake Bay, most of the 295 residents of Maryland's Smith Island packed up and left for the mainland, but 50 to 60 stayed behind.
"I've been here 65 years. I've never left for one yet. I was here for Hazel when the eye came right over the island," said waterman Eddie Evans, 65, sitting on a dock after tying down his crab traps.
Seventy-eight patients were evacuated from a nursing home at tiny Sea Level, N.C.which is literally at sea level on Core Sound north of Cape Lookout. Many of the patients at the Carteret General Hospital home are in early stages of Alzheimer's, and the staff's preparations included taking along movies that the residents are accustomed to watching.
"We're just going on a little vacation," nursing assistant Michelle Sanderling reassured 80-year-old Jane Condon. "Everything's going to be all right."