Large waves began pounding into the North Carolina coast Friday morning, heralding the advance of a slightly weakened but still sprawling and strong Hurricane Irene.
A storm that experts say could cause billions of dollars' damage from the Carolinas to Canada is expected to make landfall Saturday afternoon between Morehead City and Cape Hatteras, with winds somewhere between 110 and 120 mph.
Hurricane warnings now are flying from the North Carolina-South Carolina border up to Sandy Hook, N.J., including inland North Carolina areas near Albemarle, Currituck and Pamlico sounds. Tropical storm warnings are posted on the South Carolina coast from Edisto Beach up to Little River, and for portions of Chesapeake Bay near the District of Columbia.
Irene, which could impact 65 million people this weekend, lost a bit of strength overnight. Its top sustained winds dropped from 115 to 110 mph, and it is now a Category 2 storm, just 1 mph below Category 3 and "major" hurricane status.
At 5 a.m. Friday, the center of Hurricane Irene was at 29.3 degrees north and 77.2 degrees west, or 420 miles south of Cape Hatteras. Irene had top winds of 110 mph and was moving to the north at 14 mph.
Many forecasters emphasized the same point Friday morning -- Hurricane Irene is a huge storm, as large as Hurricane Katrina (though not quite as strong), and it will affect a vast land area. National Hurricane Center planes found a 20-mile-wide eye early Friday, and they said hurricane-force winds extend out 90 miles from the storm's center.
Tropical storm-force winds of 39 to 73 mph were found nearly 300 miles from the eye.
Jack Beven of the National Hurricane Center said Friday morning that some strengthening is expected today.
"Irene should be near the Category 3 level when it approaches the North Carolina coast," Beven said.
Waves of 6 to 8 feet were being reported at daybreak Friday along the coast from Myrtle Beach north to the Outer Banks. Dangerous rip currents were a big problem Thursday, with authorities rescuing six swimmers along the Grand Strand and more than a dozen at Wrightsville Beach near Wilmington.
But much bigger problems could be ahead, forecasters say.
"An extremely dangerous storm surge will raise water levels by as much as 6 to 11 feet above ground level in the hurricane warning area in North Carolina," Beven said.
Or, noted tropical storm expert Jeff Masters, "Irene is capable of inundating portions of the coast under 10 to 15 feet of water."
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