MITCH WEISS, Associated Press
TOM BREEN, Associated Press
NAGS HEAD, N.C. - Hurricane Irene battered North Carolina's coast on Saturday, wreaking havoc in the form of spreading power outages affecting more than 91,000 customers, street flooding and splintered piers as it began a potentially catastrophic run up the East Coast.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami said the enormous storm had weakened somewhat but winds topping 80 mph (130 kph) began lashing the shoreline near Jacksonville, N.C., around dawn. Gusts as high as 94 mph (151 kph) were recorded in that area at the southern tip of North Carolina's Outer Banks.
The storm's ill-defined center next made landfall near Cape Lookout about an hour afterward at about 7:30 a.m.
At the resort town of Nags Head on the Outer Banks, winds whipped heavy rain Saturday morning. Tall waves covered the beach and the big, foaming rollers pushed as high as the backs of some houses and hotels.
Transportation officials shut down two major highways along the North Carolina coast as Irene pummeled the region. The Department of Transportation said state Highway 12 through the southern Outer Banks and U.S. 64 east of Columbia to near Nags Head were closed Saturday morning.
The roads are expected to stay closed until the worst of the weather from Irene moves away and crews can make sure the highways are passable. Authorities say the ocean has washed over NC 12 both on Ocracoke Island north of the village of Ocracoke and in Dare County south of the Bonner Bridge.
NC 12 is the fragile, two-lane lifeline that connects the small Outer Banks villages to the mainland, while U.S. 64 is the main route from mainland North Carolina to the Outer Banks.
Power outages were affecting tens of thousands of customers.
Progress Energy reported more than 67,000 customers without power, with more than 14,000 each in New Hanover and Carteret counties. Virginia-based Dominion Power reported more than 24,000 customers in North Carolina without power.
Among those without power is Carteret General Hospital in Morehead City. A woman who answered the phone there says the hospital is running on generators.
Progress Energy said it will have an additional 800 line workers and 250 tree cutters at its disposal once the storm blows by and it's safe to venture out.
Two piers along North Carolina's southern Outer Banks have been damaged in Hurricane Irene. Emerald Isle town manager Frank Rush says the end of Bogue Inlet Pier collapsed. In addition, part of the pier behind the Sheraton Hotel in Atlantic Beach has collapsed.
After bashing the North Carolina coast, Irene is expected to continue churning its way up the East Coast on an uncertain path through some of the most densely populated areas of the United States. Some 65 million people live in that corridor vulnerable to Irene's slashing winds, heavy rains and battering coastal waves.
Belhaven Town manager Guinn Leverett said a mobile home, an outbuilding and trees were damaged late Friday in the Beaufort County town even before Irene arrived as the result of a possible tornado. He said it was too dark when the damage took place to be sure of the extent of it or the exact cause.
Also Saturday, authorities said rescuers will resume their search as soon as possible for a man who jumped or fell into the Cape Fear River in Castle Hayne as Hurricane Irene bore down on the region.
Sgt. J.J. Brewer of the New Hanover County Sheriff's Department said early Saturday that authorities have set up a command post near a boat ramp at the Cape Fear River. He says they received a report that a man either jumped or fell into the river. Rescuers put a boat in the water for a few minutes but were unable to locate anyone.
He says the missing man was one of three men who went to the boat ramp. He wasn't sure when authorities received the call.
Meanwhile, some on the exposed Outer banks decided to ride out the hurricane, ignoring warnings earlier in the week to get out.
Officials including Gov. Beverly Perdue had made last-minute pleas for residents to leave the coast ahead of Irene, amid fears that a powerful storm surge was likely to overwash coastal roads. They also pointed out the danger of the punishing winds and warned that flooding could also affect inland communities along rivers that flow into the sounds.
Though top sustained winds had fallen from 100 mph to 90 mph in a matter of hours, but Irene was expected to spend hours grinding over eastern North Carolina before heading further up the Eastern Seaboard.
The swath of the storm could affect more than 3.5 million people living in 20 eastern counties, the governor said.
Eighteen eastern counties were under some form of mandatory or voluntary evacuation order or request for visitors, residents or both, according to the state Division of Emergency Management. More than 60 shelters were open in 26 counties.
While many tourists and residents heeded orders earlier in the week, some die-hards planned to stay and officials issued dire notices.
Frisco Fire Chief Richard Marlin told The Associated Press that he ordered 75 body bags to supplement his Hatteras Island town's normal supply of 10.
"I anticipate we're going to have people floating on the streets, and I don't want to leave them lying there," Marlin said.
About 2,500 of the 4,000 or so full-time residents of Hatteras were still on the island, officials said. About half of Ocracoke's 1,000 year-rounders were also apparently choosing to face the storm, as the last ferry from the island - the only way to get on and off - sailed at 4 p.m. EDT.
To the north, Nags Head and nearby areas like Kill Devil Hills, normally thronged this time of year with late-summer tourists, were rendered ghost towns after people boarded up businesses and homes and evacuated earlier.
The state has been positioning itself with food, water, tarps and other disaster recovery supplies at locations throughout eastern North Carolina, said Ernie Seneca, a state emergency management spokesman.
The National Weather Service said areas most likely to accumulate the greatest flooding include the Outer Banks, areas adjacent to the Pamlico and Albemarle sounds, the Neuse and Pamlico rivers and in Carteret County. The combined storm surge could reach 10 feet or higher above ground level in parts of Carteret County and along the southern Pamlico Sound, the weather office said. Farther north, the Currituck County community of Corolla also could experience significant flooding, according to forecasters.