Hurricane Irene knocked out power and piers in North Carolina, clobbered Virginia with wind and churned up the coast Saturday to confront cities more accustomed to snowstorms than tropical storms.
With most of its transportation machinery shut down, the Eastern Seaboard spent the day nervously watching the storm's march across a swath of the nation inhabited by 65 million people.
The hurricane had an enormous wingspan -- 500 miles, its outer reaches stretching from the Carolinas to Cape Cod -- and packed wind gusts of 115 mph.
New York City emptied its streets and subways and waited with an eerie quiet.
Travelers across the country faced days of grief due to the thousands of flights canceled because of the storm.
Irene approached the mid-Atlantic region with heavy rain and high winds Saturday, causing President Obama to declare a state of emergency in Maryland and area officials and residents to brace for the worst.
Irene's sustained winds on Saturday night were blowing at 80 mph and the storm was moving north-northeast still on a path to reach New England by today.
In Delaware, a Sussex County spokesman said that according to the National Weather Service, a tornado touched down in Nassau Station on Saturday night just southwest of Lewes, damaging 15 structures.
Hurricane warnings extended north to Nantucket, Mass., and a tropical storm warning extended all the way to the south coast of Nova Scotia.
The National Hurricane Center said late Saturday that areas of concern for a strong storm surge are Delaware Bay, Jersey Shore, New York Harbor and Long Island Sound.
In the beachfront community of Ocean City, Md., 300 of the city's 7,000 residents chose not to follow evacuation orders and authorities asked them to remain indoors. In Delaware, hundreds were already at shelters and in Washington, hundreds of cars lined up for up to two hours to receive sandbags.
Though not yet touched by the storm, the transit authority in Boston announced that public transportation would be shut down today because of the hurricane. New Jersey residents were bracing not only for the storm surge expected to be produced by approaching Irene but also heavy river flooding along the Passaic, Ramapo and Saddle rivers as the hurricane dumps up to 10 inches of rain on an already saturated landscape.
At least 1.5 million homes and businesses were without power. While it was too early to assess the full threat, Irene was blamed for five deaths.
Irene made its official landfall just after first light near Cape Lookout, N.C., at the southern end of the Outer Banks, the ribbon of land that bows out into the Atlantic Ocean. Shorefront hotels and houses were lashed with waves. Two piers were destroyed, and at least one hospital was forced to run on generator power.
"Things are banging against the house," Leon Reasor said as he rode out the storm in the town of Buxton. "I hope it doesn't get worse, but I know it will. I just hate hurricanes."
By evening, the storm had weakened to sustained winds of 80 mph, down from 100 mph on Friday. That made it a Category 1, the least threatening on a 1-to-5 scale, and barely stronger than a tropical storm. Its center was positioned almost exactly where North Carolina meets Virginia at the Atlantic, and it was picking up speed, moving at 16 mph -- up from 13 mph -- as it re-emerged over the Atlantic.
After the Outer Banks, the storm strafed Virginia with rain and strong wind. It covered the Hampton Roads region, which is thick with inlets and rivers and floods easily, and chugged north toward Chesapeake Bay. Shaped like a massive inverted comma, the storm had a thick northern flank that covered all of Delaware, almost all of Maryland and the eastern half of Virginia.
The deaths blamed on Irene included two children, an 11-year-old boy in Virginia killed when a tree crashed through his roof and a North Carolina child who died in a crash at an intersection where traffic lights were out. In addition, a North Carolina man was killed by a flying tree limb, a passenger died when a tree fell on in a car in Virginia, and a surfer and another beachgoer in Florida were killed in heavy waves.
It was the first hurricane to make landfall in the continental United States since 2008, and came almost six years to the day after Katrina ravaged New Orleans. Experts guessed that no other hurricane in American history had threatened as many people.
At least 2.3 million were under orders to move to somewhere safer, although it was unclear how many obeyed or, in some cases, how they could.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told 6,500 troops from all branches of the military to get ready to pitch in on relief work, and President Obama visited the Federal Emergency Management Agency's command center in Washington and offered moral support.
While there were plenty of cabs on the street, New York City was far quieter than on an average Saturday. In some of the busiest parts of Manhattan, it was possible to cross a major avenue without looking, and the waters of New York Harbor, which might normally be churning from boat traffic, were quiet before the storm.
The five main New York-area airports -- La Guardia, John F. Kennedy and Newark, plus two smaller ones -- waved in their last arriving flights around noon. The Giants and Jets postponed their preseason NFL game, the Mets postponed two baseball games, and Broadway theaters were dark.
Greyhound suspended bus service between Richmond, Va., and Boston. Amtrak canceled trains in the Northeast for today.
The power losses covered 900,000 homes and businesses and were heavily concentrated in Virginia and North Carolina. Dominion Resources reported almost 600,000 customers without power and Progress Energy 260,000, with much of the outages in Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach, N.C.
Irene roared across the Caribbean earlier this week, offering a devastating preview for the United States: power outages, dangerous floods and high winds that caused millions of dollars in damage.