World and Nation

Irene’s approach forces East Coast to batten down

DEVIL HILLS, N.C. — John H. Woolard, who is 79 years old, cannot remember how many hurricanes he has confronted at his home, also 79, which sits on stilts overlooking the Atlantic Ocean here. Is it 12? Or 14?

“I have never left,” he said proudly Thursday afternoon, showing off a photograph he took of a storm in 1962. “But I think I’m going to leave this time.”

“This one,” he said, referring to Hurricane Irene, “is dead on us.”

It was a day of weather wake-up calls for residents from North Carolina to Maine as the storm pummeled the Bahamas.

A forecast track that a day earlier predicted the hurricane would pass just off North Carolina’s fragile Outer Banks shifted west Thursday morning, putting a weekend bull’s-eye on Wilmington, N.C.; Virginia Beach, Va.; Atlantic City, N.J.; and New York City, and jolting beachgoers and old-timers alike.

The National Hurricane Center said Thursday night that maximum winds at the center of the hurricane were 115 mph, making it a Category 3 storm. Hurricane warnings were issued for the length of the North Carolina coast, where Irene is expected to make landfall Saturday afternoon, and hurricane watches were posted in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey, where the storm is expected to lash coastal areas before reaching New York in a somewhat weakened state Sunday.

In Washington, the storm forced organizers to indefinitely postpone the dedication of the new memorial to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which was scheduled for Sunday.

W. Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said the hurricane was likely to drop as much as 10 inches of rain in some areas.

“This will not just be a coastal storm,” he said. “We can see impacts well inland.”

Amtrak announced that it was canceling train service for Friday, Saturday and Sunday south of Washington because of the storm. Service in the Northeast Corridor is not affected.

Forecasters said Irene presented some unusual problems. For one thing, it is uncommonly large: Hurricane-force winds of at least 74 mph extended 70 miles from its center Thursday, and winds of at least 40 mph reached 255 miles out.

The storm was also moving slowly, about 14 mph, compared with speeds of 30 mph to 40 mph for similar storms, said Dennis Feltgen, a spokesman for the hurricane center. Both the hurricane’s size and slow pace could intensify flooding in the Middle Atlantic states and in the Northeast, where the ground is already saturated in places from heavy rains this summer.

A tropical storm warning was also in effect in South Carolina, and conditions along the coast there are expected to deteriorate as the hurricane passes Friday. It spared Florida for the most part as it lashed the Bahamas, but authorities in Palm Beach County said at least eight people were injured when they were hit by a hurricane-spawned wave on a Boynton Beach Inlet jetty, the Associated Press reported.