JACKSONVILLE, N.C. - Hurricane Isabel pinwheeled into North Carolina and Virginia with devastating force early yesterday afternoon, then screamed up the Eastern seaboard, knocking out power for more than 2 million people in those two states alone, ripping the roofs off homes, felling trees, and flooding low-lying areas.
The huge storm, covering more than 100,000 square miles, looked like a spiral galaxy in satellite photos as its eye crashed into North Carolina's Outer Banks, its outer ring of clouds sprawled in an arc from Nova Scotia west to southern Quebec, south to Ohio, eastern Kentucky and Tennessee, and east again to South Carolina.
Its fury surprised even weather-worn veterans, though they were encountering a weakened version, downgraded from the 160 mph, Category 5 behemoth that roiled the Atlantic Ocean a week ago.
"This one was a monster - it's still a monster," said Mark Goodman, director of the Onslow County Emergency Management Center in Jacksonville, about 35 miles southwest of where the storm's large eyewall passed near Ocracoke Island, N.C., between noon and 1 p.m., packing sustained winds of 95 mph and gusts to 105, according to the National Hurricane Center.
3 deaths, heavy damage
Even as the storm carved a path of destruction, there were only three reported deaths attributed to Isabel by mid-evening - a man in Arnold in Anne Arundel County whose car slammed into a tree, a Virginia motorist whose car hydroplaned in heavy rains on Interstate 95 north of Richmond, and a utility employee in North Carolina who was electrocuted while restoring power, authorities said.
High winds blew out the windows of a storm shelter near Elizabeth City, N.C., injuring five people with flying glass.
"I think most people took this storm very seriously," said Terry Bishirjian, a spokesman for the city of Norfolk, Va. "That's one reason why we're seeing so little human damage."
But property damage was another matter.
In rural Tyrrell County (population 4,100), just to the north of Jacksonville, county manager J.D. Brickhouse said, "There's more tree damage than I've ever seen. We have trees through houses, there's not a road in the county that we can get down. We haven't had power since 7:30 this morning."
He said three of the sheriff's five cars were damaged by falling trees and talked of a riverside cottage that "disintegrated." The owner's boat sank, and he was missing, Brickhouse said.
In Virginia Beach, Va., to the north, powerful gusts tore the facade off a beachfront Ramada hotel, as water splashed across the boardwalk, empty of the tourists who usually populate it.
The heavily trafficked Elizabeth River Midtown Tunnel linking Norfolk to Portsmouth was flooded and closed. Officials feared it had structural damage.
"This is the strongest storm I've worked in my 32 years here," said Jim Talbot, deputy coordinator of emergency management in Norfolk.
North Carolina Gov. Michael F. Easley asked for a federal disaster declaration to make the state eligible for damage assistance - and President Bush, who left the White House Wednesday night for his mountaintop retreat at Camp David, swiftly granted it.
Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell issued a statewide "disaster emergency" declaration. The governors of West Virginia, Maryland, Virginia and Delaware had already declared emergencies, and the governor of New Jersey said he would.
The storm spread rain across North Carolina and Virginia and into Maryland, Delaware and parts of West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Residents of West Virginia's eastern panhandle - which lies beneath Maryland's western panhandle - were warned by National Weather Service forecasters to expect up to a foot of rain, with 6 to 9 inches predicted for parts of Pennsylvania.
The weather service said that amount of rain, falling on saturated soils in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York, could cause "serious and potentially deadly flash flooding and mudslides."
Officials said flooding could take place along larger rivers, including the Potomac, Shenandoah and the Rappahannock. Closer to the I-95 corridor, rainfall could produce major flooding of streams and creeks.
Hurricane-force winds - at least 74 mph - extended up to 115 miles from Isabel's center, with tropical storm-force winds (above 39 mph) another 230 miles out.
The storm weakened as it moved inland, as all hurricanes do when cut off from warm bodies of water. By late afternoon, Duck Pier on the Outer Banks was still reporting minimal hurricane-force winds of 73 mph, and gusts to 81. By 9 p.m., the weather service had officially downgraded Isabel to a tropical storm.
The storm, which was moving across the Atlantic as slowly as 8 mph earlier in the week, tripled in speed once over land, moving on a northwesterly track at up to 24 mph.
Isabel-propelled waters flooded much of low-lying Tidewater Virginia yesterday as the advance of the storm coincided with the high tide of midafternoon. Waters rose over 8 feet by late afternoon and continued to rise, well over the 2 1/2 - foot level of a normal high tide. A storm surge of 5 to 6 feet was reported at North Carolina's Cape Hatteras as the eye passed by, and about 4 feet in the Neuse River at New Bern, N.C., the National Hurricane Center said.
Bisected by numerous branches of the Elizabeth River and fronting the Chesapeake Bay, Norfolk spent much of the day awash in surrounding waters. The usually placid bay was frothy with churning waves, and lakes and river branches spilled from their banks.
"There was one street where you could only see the top couple of feet of the cars," said Alex Clark, a diver who normally works maintaining Navy ships, most of which were pulled out of berths at the naval base in advance of Isabel's arrival. "There's just a lot of water everywhere."
Most of Norfolk was without power, as 82,000 of the city's 95,000 homes lost electricity by late afternoon. That was the situation throughout much of the state - Virginia emergency officials said 80 percent of the Tidewater area was without power, as was 41 percent of the state.
The power outages had the potential to create a health emergency. At least half the city's sewer pumps stopped operating - it could be more, but the monitoring system also lost power so the city was unsure how many pumps were still online. Officials feared a sewage overflow and asked residents to conserve water to take pressure off the system.
Three of the city's four hospitals lost power and were running on generators. Windows were blown out of downtown buildings, including City Hall.
Those on the water were particularly vulnerable - in Virginia Beach, emergency personnel warned residents that they were on their own if they chose not to evacuate. Emergency vehicles would not be able to answer any calls for help until after hurricane winds subsided, officials said. Radio stations broadcast a macabre suggestion - that locals write their name on their forearms with permanent marker, so authorities could identify their bodies more easily should they die in the storm.
People, pets and Colts
In the Jacksonville area, the usually bustling home to seaside resorts and two Marine Corps bases - Camp Lejeune and New River Air Station - the streets took on a spooky feel yesterday, with grocery stores boarded up and malls and gas stations deserted in response to a curfew that kept residents off the street until 4 a.m. today.
Nearly 700 people took refuge in emergency shelters, many of them residents of mobile homes, and Marine dependents, many of whom had never experienced a hurricane before.
At a shelter set up at Jacksonville Commons Middle School, Red Cross officials took the unusual step of allowing people to bring their pets, the first time in the state and perhaps the nation that a Red Cross shelter has done so, officials said. In prior storms, some people were reluctant to evacuate their homes because they couldn't take pets to shelters.
During Hurricane Floyd in 1999, "We lost a lot of pets and, worse, people stayed behind in unsafe situations or went home too soon," said Jacqui Vanderwoude, who ran the animal shelter at Jacksonville Commons.
By midday, Vanderwoude was on a first-name basis with many of the dogs who sat in crates, unable to go outside for most of the day because the winds were too strong to open the exit door.
"We live in a mobile home and this is my first hurricane, but what frightened me most was having to leave my pets home," said Heather DeKlever, 24, who sat on the floor with her four dogs.
At the county's emergency services center, which was built to withstand 155 mph winds and constructed on pilings to avoid flooding, workers in color-coded vests hunkered down to answer calls, track the storm and prepare for its aftermath while spooning homemade chili cooked up by the director's wife, Marion Goodman.
In Norfolk streets, the occasional open bar or restaurant lured the few who ventured out from their darkened homes.
"What are you going to do - sit at home?" asked Stephen Spruill, a supervisor at Seaward Marine Services, who surely deserves an award for his contribution to Isabel relief. He brought a generator to Lee's, enabling the neighborhood taproom to serve meals, beer and distraction to an otherwise miserable population.
"I just want to try to make everyone happy," said proprietor Lee Mather, rushing to fill beer orders for the 30 or so people who had found her place open by late afternoon.
Among those who seemed quite happy was someone who made many people in Baltimore unhappy some years back - Bruce Stallings, a 23-year veteran of the Mayflower moving company, who said he drove a truck that took the Colts away.
"People threw eggs at the truck," he recalled.