Traffic on Highway 12 streaming out of Pea Island, N.C., Thursday (AP)
Shoppers in Far Rockaway, N.Y., stock up ahead of Hurricane Irene (AP)
Mike Francis braves the storm
KILL DEVIL HILLS, N.C. -- Nearly 1 million people are without power across the Eastern Seaboard thanks to Hurricane Irene.
The storm slammed into the North Carolina coast Saturday morning near Cape Lookout and began to move across the Outer Banks.
As of 7 p.m., the Category 1 hurricane has sustained winds of about 80 mph with higher gusts. Irene is moving to the north at about 16 mph. The hurricane is about 35 miles south of Norfolk, and about 315 miles south-southwest of New York City.
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A tornado spawned by Irene destroyed five homes and seriously damaged a business in Tyrell County, N.C.
The storm claimed at least eight lives by Saturday afternoon.
Five deaths were reportd in North Carolina, according to authorities. Two men died in separate accidents when trees fell on their cars. A child died in Goldsboro when the car he was riding in was struck at an intersection where the traffic lights had failed because of the storm, and another driver died in Pitt County after losing control in standing water and hitting a tree.
Two people died in Virginia from falling trees, while a surfer died in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., authorities said.
While some were discounting the weakening storm, government officials were clearly concerned that people would dismiss warnings of potentially devastating flooding and ignore calls to evacuate or prepare.
"Some of our most devastating floods have occurred in tropical storms," FEMA administrator Craig Fugate said.
President Barack Obama continued to closely monitor the storm, according to White House officials. He toured FEMA's operations center Saturday morning. Meanwhile, defense officials told 6,500 service members to prepare to deploy to storm-ravaged regions should state officials need them.
The Red Cross sheltered 13,000 people in 150 shelters Friday night, President Gail McGovern said. More than two-thirds of the nonprofit's emergency response vehicles had deployed to the East Coast, she said.
"We're now in the middle of what could be one of the largest responses that the Red Cross operations has had in recent memory," she said.
In Virginia, where the U.S. Navy had sent much of its fleet to sea to avoid the storm's wrath, the state Department of Emergency Management said 393,024 electricity customers were already without power.
In Atlantic Beach, N.C., which did not feel the full brunt of the storm, a hotel face ripped away and part of a pier was washed into the raging sea. Walls of water came gushing onto land, flooding waterfront roads.
Hurricanes usually weaken over land, but Irene's first U.S. target, the slivers of North Carolina islands in the Atlantic, are marshlands surrounded by water and Irene is expected to keep churning with hurricane force.
Airlines canceled thousands of flights and airports in Philadelphia, Washington, New York and Boston all planned to suspend operations for at least some part of the weekend.
Emergency officials in Maryland closed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel until further notice, the state Emergency Management Agency reported.
Authorities in New York shut down the city's massive transit system at noon ET, and they continued to warn residents of low-lying areas to evacuate immediately. The city ordered an unprecedented evacuation of 370,000 residents on Friday.
"No matter what the track is, no matter how much it weakens, this is a life-threatening storm," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Saturday.
The storm slapped North Carolina overnight and into Saturday morning with thrashing winds that knocked down trees and power lines and left around 516,000 power customers in the dark, utility Progress Energy and state emergency managers reported. Storm surges of up to 9 feet occurred in coastal areas.
On Ocracoke Island, at the southern end of the Outer Banks, a couple of hundred residents riding out the storm lost power early Saturday morning. Their power lines are strung along poles mounted on the highest sand dunes.
"The power went off for good around 5 a.m.," said Clayton Gaskill, who had been trying to keep the island's tiny radio station, WOVV, running through the night. "We won't be back on the air until the storm goes by, because there's no shelter for the portable generators," he said in a text message to CNN.
A tornado touched down in Tyrrell County around 1 a.m., said Mark Van Sciver of the North Carolina Joint Information Center. Atlantic Beach avoided the full brunt of the storm. Still, walls of water roared onto land, flooding streets and parking lots.
A hotel facade ripped away and part of a pier fell into the ocean.
In New Jersey, 1,500 National Guard members fanned out across the state and Gov. Chris Christie said more than one million people living along the Jersey shore had evacuated. But he said authorities were worried about 600 high-rise residents in Atlantic City who were refusing to leave their homes.
"Allow us to protect you," he pleaded.
In New York, Bloomberg pleaded for residents once again Saturday to take Irene seriously.
He said low-lying coastal areas under serious threat included Coney Island and Manhattan Beach in Brooklyn, Far Rockaway and Broad Channel in Queens, South Beach, Midland Beach, and other parts of Staten Island, Battery Park City in lower Manhattan, and sections of the Bronx.
"We have never done a mandatory evacuation before, and we wouldn't be doing this now if we didn't think the storm had the potential to be very serious."
And as if that wasn't enough, there's been a mild earthquake in the midst of the preparations for Hurricane Irene.
Saturday, the United States Geological Survey said a magnitude 2.9 earthquake had been reported near Altamont, N.Y.
"Although this was a mild earthquake, out of an abundance of caution, I have ordered immediate inspection of nearby infrastructure, including a NYPA inspection of the Blenheim-Gilboa Dam in Schoharie County (N.Y.)," said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in a statement Saturday afternoon.