Hurricane Irene: How bad will it be?

The East Coast is bracing for the most powerful storm to hit its shores in decades. Here's what you need to know

Hurricane hysteria is in full force. As news outlets across the country have been extensively reporting for days, Hurricane Irene is barreling toward the East Coast, and is expected to cause extensive damage from North Carolina all the way up through Massachusetts and New England. Irene will reach the North Carolina coast on Saturday before taking "dead aim at New York City" on Sunday, says the Daily News. Currently, Irene ranks in the "top 50 most intense hurricanes ever observed in the Atlantic basin," according to The Wall Street Journal. Just how bad might the storm be? Here, seven things to expect:

1. Severe weather conditions
Irene was originally predicted to hit the East Coast as a Category 3 hurricane, but has been downgraded to a Category 2. But don't rest easy yet — winds up to 105 mph are still expected. The Northeast corridor can expect up to 10 inches of rain, warns Bill Read at the National Hurricane Center. Since the ground is already saturated from recent rainfall, that could mean flash floods. Twenty-foot storm surges on the banks of New York City's rivers are possible, "JFK airport could be swamped," and a surge on Long Island Sound could breach sea walls protecting LaGuardia Airport, says Dr. Jeff Masters at Weather UndergroundFEMA warns that East Coast flooding could be as severe as Hurricane Katrina's.

2. Mass evacuations
With 50 million people potentially in Hurricane Irene's path, many states are advising residents in the line of the storm to evacuate. In North Carolina, 200,000 tourists and residents have already evacuated. The state's governor is urging 3.5 million other residents to get out of the storm's path, too. New Jersey has ordered 750,000 people out of its Cape May area. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered the first mandatory evacuations in the Big Apple's history, affecting low-lying sections of the city in all five boroughs.

3. Transit shutdowns
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo says that New York City's sprawling subway and bus system will shut down beginning at noon Saturday. Air travel will also likely be a nightmare. On Friday afternoon, JetBlue became the first major airline to announce major cancellations, according to Bloomberg, scrapping 882 flights scheduled for Saturday and Sunday. The Northeast is "the busiest airspace in the U.S.," and a total of seven major airports in New York City, Boston, Washington, and Philadelphia are expected to either entirely or partially shut down. Amtrak trains linking New York and Charlotte, N.C., have also been canceled

4. Entertainment postponed
Major League Baseball, the Women's Tennis Association, the NFL, and Major League Soccer have all rescheduled games and matches to accommodate the storm, reports ESPN.  In Atlantic City, most casinos plan "to stop rolling the dice and turn off slot machines" by 8 p.m. Friday night, says James Barron at The New York Times. The highly-anticipated dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C., was also canceled. But as of Friday afternoon, Playbill maintained that on Broadway, at least, the show must go on.

5. Widespread power outages
Downed power lines and widespread outages are expected all along the Eastern seaboard, says Jerry A. Dicolo and Rebecca Smith at The Wall Street Journal. Recent heavy rainfall could make matters worse, as trees are more likely to be uprooted by strong winds, "both adding to downed lines and slowing restoration efforts." ConEd, which supplies power to much of New York City, is worried that flooding could delay workers from restoring power. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley is warning residents that power could be out for up to 72 hours.

6. Record-setting damages
This could be a "multibillion-dollar catastrophe," says Nate Silver at The New York Times. Judging from the damage caused by previous hurricanes that have hit the Northeast, a storm with wind speeds of 100 mph could cause $35 billion in damage if it passes directly over Manhattan. This would rank Irene among the costliest natural disasters of all time.

7. Widespread panic
The National Hurricane Center made the switch from three-day forecasts to five-day forecasts ten years go, says Ryan Naquin at Carolina Live. This "gives us more time to prepare but also gives us more time to worry." Indeed, says Adrain Chen at Gawker. Doomsday forecasts have turned into a "dire weather prediction geek-off" that has sent many residents in the path of the storm into a panic. But, as a paternal President Obama cautioned in an address Friday afternoon, "We all hope for the best, but we have to be prepared for the worst."

Sources: ABC News, Bloomberg, Carolina Live, CBS News (2), CNN, Daily News, ESPN, NY Times (2), NPR, Playbill, Sky, Railway Age, USA Today, Wall Street Journal (2), Weather Underground


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