WILMINGTON — The first punch from Hurricane Irene landed here Friday, foreshadowing with brutal authority what is to come as this vast storm, its most forceful winds stretching outward for 90 miles, churned north.
Mandatory evacuations were ordered all along the Eastern seaboard, as far north as the New Jersey shore and parts of New York City. Roads and highways were filled with caravans of ousted vacationers and homeowners, many fleeing under still-sunlit skies in anticipation of torrential rains, dangerous tidal surges and the likelihood of days without power.
With an estimated 55 million people in the path of a storm the size of California, the East Coast's major cities prepared for the worst. Watches were posted and states of emergency declared for North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and New England.
Amtrak canceled train service for the weekend, and airlines began canceling flights, urging travelers to stay home. For the first time, New York City planned to shut down its entire mass transit and subway system - the world's largest - beginning at noon today. New Jersey Transit is set to suspend service then as well.
'A historic hurricane'
Organizations from the Pentagon to the American Red Cross were positioning mobile units and preparing shelters with food and water. The Defense Department has amassed 18 helicopters with life-saving equipment, 10 which are on the USS Wasp, a ship that has moved out to sea from Norfolk, Va., to get out of Irene's way.
"All of us have to take this storm seriously," said President Barack Obama, who cut short his family vacation on Martha's Vineyard, Mass., to head back to Washington on Friday. "All indications point to this being a historic hurricane."
With a storm this big and this wet - the National Hurricane Center in Miami said its tropical-storm force winds stretched out 290 miles - when it hits land, the power of the winds might not be as important as the amount of rainfall.
Such a huge dump of sustained rain along with high winds most likely will uproot trees from soggy ground and cause wide-scale loss of power.
Federal officials warned that whatever the force of the winds, this storm is powerful, and its effects would be felt well inland.