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9 Killed as Isabel Wallops the East

Hurricane comes ashore in North Carolina, then heads north. Thousands of flights are canceled, and over 2.6 million customers lose power.

September 19, 2003|Stephen Braun and John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writers

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Howling like a crippled beast, Hurricane Isabel crawled across the Outer Banks of North Carolina and into Virginia on Thursday, weakening but still wild enough to snap aluminum power poles, flip house trailers and black out more than 2.6 million homes and businesses.

Nine people died. Seven were killed in traffic accidents, one was crushed by a falling tree, and one was a utility employee electrocuted while trying to restore power.

The government shut down in Washington, and federal offices are to remain closed today. Airlines canceled more than 2,000 flights Thursday to and from the East Coast, and Amtrak halted trains south of the District of Columbia. Schools closed in North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and the nation's capital.

President Bush declared a disaster in North Carolina and Virginia, ordering federal aid for repairs and low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses.

At 2 a.m. EDT today, the eye of the storm was centered just north of Charlottesville, Va., according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Isabel had been downgraded to a tropical storm and was moving northwest at 23 mph. Maximum sustained winds had dropped to about 60 mph and extended 345 miles from its center.

A tropical storm warning extended northward to Long Island and included parts of New York City. Forecasters said Isabel would continue to weaken, but they predicted heavy flooding and landslides as far north as West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York.

The storm threatened to spawn tornadoes as it hurtled north.

While the hurricane was still far to the south, officials in Washington closed federal offices, except for emergency operations. Universities and private businesses followed suit.

The president and many members of Congress had left town the day before, while skies were clear. Bush flew by helicopter to his retreat at Camp David in Maryland. The king and queen of Jordan went to the retreat Thursday, met with Bush and spent the day.

In the District of Columbia, workers began distributing sandbags. By midday, at least 8,000 had been filled with more than 100 tons of sand in preparation for flooding. Subways and buses stopped running, and officials said they would decide after an inspection at 5 a.m. today whether to restore transit service.

All along the southeastern coast, people took shelter Thursday and braved Isabel as best they could.

"What I could use is a change of scenery," said Craig Tulley, taking shelter inside a Shell station in Virginia Beach. He was soaking wet. The wind flung doors open behind him and howled inside until clerk Will Batts pulled them shut again.

On the Outer Banks, Tom Gardner and his wife, Susan, rode out the storm in their six-room bed-and-breakfast, the Tree Seasons Guest House, in Kitty Hawk, N.C., only 36 feet above sea level.

"We have no power and no cable," Tom Gardner said by telephone at 1 p.m. as Isabel made landfall near Drum Inlet, about 100 miles to the south between Cape Lookout, N.C., and Ocracoke Island. "The waves are vicious."

The landfall came at high tide, and the hurricane swamped Highway 12, a crucial route running through the Outer Banks. Public safety officials said the road was impassable.

Twenty-five-foot waves cascaded against the Virginia Beach shoreline, and the city pier and boardwalk began to crumble. In the nearby community of Sandbridge, ocean water leached into backyards, rushed over bridges and eroded sea sand.

At least 1,800 Virginia Beach residents fled its coastline neighborhoods and took refuge in eight shelters, said city spokeswoman Diane C. Roche. But the shelters had their own problems. One elementary school lost power, and a high school grew so crowded that officials turned scores of people away.

Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner said at least 4,000 residents filed into 85 shelters around the state, and at least 5,000 National Guardsmen went on duty to protect their property.

Isabel was born a nasty storm that grew into a Category 5 hurricane -- the strongest there is -- as it moved toward the East Coast. Forecasters said it reached winds of 160 mph on Sunday.

Five days ago, officials began urging more than 300,000 people in North Carolina and Virginia to flee to higher ground. Anyone who stayed, they said, should notify next of kin and write their names on their forearms with permanent markers so they could be readily identified.

But by the time Isabel struck land, some of its strength was gone. Indeed, about 100 of the 900 residents of Ocracoke Island reportedly chose to stay home.

They and many others lost power. About 2 million customers were blacked out during the afternoon in southeastern Virginia and eastern North Carolina alone, according to Associated Press, along with 430,000 in Maryland, 78,000 in the District of Columbia and 100,000 in New Jersey.

Storm surges swelled to 6 feet at Cape Hatteras, N.C., and about 4 feet in the Neuse River at New Bern, N.C.

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