Eastern seaboard prepares for the worst as Hurricane Irene draws near


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Tens of millions of residents of the eastern seaboard of the United States were fixed on their television screens or glancing at the sky last night as weather forecasters tracked the lumbering progress of Hurricane Irene, an uncommonly scary storm as much for its very wide girth as for its fierce winds.

While Irene, which earlier strafed the Bahamas and other Caribbean islands causing relatively little damage, was due to make landfall as a Category 2 or Category 3 hurricane in North Carolina this afternoon, it threatened later this weekend to pound a far larger area extending north over the densely populated metropolitan areas of Washington DC, Philadelphia, New York and possibly Boston.

For many in those cities, Irene represented an unfamiliar threat. While most New Yorkers know that their city is potentially vulnerable, in the last 200 years it has only been hit by a handful of significant hurricanes. Very few remember the storm of 1938 that killed 600 people with flooding and 17ft storm surges.

In 1821, a hurricane raised tides in New York harbour by 13ft in just an hour and inundated all of the southern tip of Manhattan. "One of my greatest nightmares was having a major hurricane go up the whole north-east coast," Max Mayfield, the National Hurricane Centre's retired director, told the Associated Press. "There's going to be millions of people affected." States of emergency were in effect in multiple eastern states last night, including New Jersey, Maryland and Connecticut. In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered the evacuation beginning 8am yesterday of hospitals and old people's care homes in lower-lying areas of the city.

Officials warned that a general population evacuation order for those areas could come this morning.