Isabel Downgraded But Dangerous

WASHINGTON, DC, September 18, 2003 (ENS) - Three people have died and at least 2.5 million others are without power as Isabel, now downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm, slams across the Mid-Atlantic states.

Air travel has been disrupted near the nation's capital. The storm forced the closure of the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport at 4 this afternoon and it is not expected to reopen until 6 am Friday. The Richmond International Airport in Virginia was closed at 7 this evening. The date and time when the airport is expected to reopen is not known, federal transport officials said.

President George W. Bush declared a major disaster in North Carolina this afternoon and ordered the release of federal disaster funds and emergency resources to help people hit by the storm. A second disaster declaration for Virginia was issued by the President this evening.

Centered now about 35 miles west of Richmond, Virginia, the storm is moving toward the north-northwest at a speed of 23 miles per hour, according to the National Weather Service.


Hurricane Isabel strikes the eastern United States (Photo Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA)
The storm's center is expected to move across western Pennsylvania and the eastern Great Lakes during the next 24 hours.

A tropical storm warning remains in effect from north of Currituck Beach, North Carolina to Moriches Inlet, New York, an area that includes the Chesapeake Bay, the tidal Potomac River and Delaware Bay.

Maximum sustained winds have decreased 65 miles per hour with stronger gusts, and may affect high-rise buildings, forecasters warn. Tropical storm force winds extend out some 345 miles to the northeast of the center, but the NOAA hurrican center says that radar, satellite and surface observations suggest that Isabel is rapidly losing its inner core.

The storm's center blew ashore just after noon along the southern Outer Banks of North Carolina, south of Ocracoke Island, where winds were reported at 100 miles per hour.

Gene Dailey, a volunteer member of the Red Cross Rapid Response Team on site in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. “About 100 emergency response vehicles are ready to deliver emergency items, meals and clean-up kits to those affected by Hurricane Isabel. We have 500 Red Cross volunteers and staff already assigned to the response effort, with another 200 volunteers on standby,” he said.

Firefighters from Charlotte, North Carolina helped rescue survivors of Isabel’s flooding today in Havelock. An estimated 40 homes were lost to rising waters and more than 130 people are still trapped inside their homes, NBC6-TV reported.

As the storm moved out of the Carolinas, Atlantic Beach was reopened to residents. Those who returned found flooded streets, crews working to restore power and police blocking streets because of live wires on the ground.

Flood waters did the most damage in the Morehead City area where the storm claimed one life. An employee of Carteret-Craven Electric Cooperative was electrocuted while working inside a substation making repairs in the wake of the storm.

A storm surge of five to six feet was reported at Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, the hurricane center said. There is still a threat higher storm surges and of isolated tornadoes in parts of North Carolina, Virginia and southeastern Maryland.

There is an increased potential for landslides in the mountainous regions of Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York due to rainfall from Hurricane Isabel, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) today warned state and federal agencies today.

"Given the wet soil conditions we already have in many of these areas, the risk of fast-moving landslides is significant," said USGS geologist and landslide expert Gerald Wieczorek. "Residents in landslide prone areas and anyone in mountainous areas should be aware of the warning signs and be prepared to move quickly."

Stay alert and stay awake, Wieczorek advises. Many landslide fatalities occur when people are sleeping. Listen to a radio for warnings of intense rainfall. Be aware that intense short bursts of rain may be particularly dangerous, especially after longer periods of heavy rainfall and damp weather. If you are in areas susceptible to landslides, consider leaving if it is safe to do so. Remember that driving during an intense storm can itself be hazardous.

The slope of the land, the type of geology, ground saturation and rainfall intensity all play major roles in landslide formation. As a rule of thumb, Wieczorek said, more than 2.75 inches of rain per hour for two hours; more than two inches of rain per hour for four hours; or more than 1.5 inches of rain per hour for six hours could trigger landslides in mountainous areas.

The federal Department of Transportation activated its Crisis Management Center (CMC) this morning to help affected people deal with Isabel. Repair crews are being dispatched and pre-positioned at seven critical aviation and rail sites to quickly restore service. The CMC is coordinating with the military for rescue flights, assessing needs for emergency relief, and securing the National Defense Reserve Fleet at Fort Eustis, Virginia.