SUNDAY, Aug. 28 (HealthDay News) -- At least nine people are dead, nearly 2 million homes are without power and damage to property is severe and continuing as Hurricane Irene makes it slow progress north, hitting New York City Sunday morning.
When Irene first made landfall in North Carolina early Saturday, officials at the National Hurricane Center noted a slight weakening of wind speeds -- from over 100 mph down to about 90 mph -- and downgraded it to a Category 1 hurricane. But experts said that demotion won't lessen the storm's impact on people and property, since Irene's huge size and slow progress north (at about 14 mph) means flooding will be severe.
"The emphasis for this storm is on its size and duration, not necessarily how strong the strongest winds are," National Hurricane Center expert Mike Brennan told the Associated Press.
Emergency officials in six states and New England had already told an estimated 55 million residents to brace for the worst this weekend, and over 2 million people have been told to move to safer areas. More than 1 million people in New Jersey, 315,000 in Maryland, 300,000 in North Carolina, 200,000 in Virginia and 100,000 in Delaware have been told to evacuate.
In New York City, its streets eerily deserted and transit system closed, people braced for the onslaught. Late Saturday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg told New Yorkers to stay indoors and out of harm's way. "The time for evacuation is over. Everyone should now go inside and stay inside," he told the AP.
That's because high winds, downed trees and flying debris remain a big safety hazard. According to media reports, at least five people have so far died after trees fell on them or their homes in the midst of the storm. Two others have died after making the fatal decision to surf or play in the waves churned up by the storm.
Power outages are widespread and already affect nearly 2 million homes, the AP added. Over 900,000 customers in Virginia and North Carolina have lost electricity, supplier Dominion Resources said, while Baltmore Gas & Electric said that nearly a quarter-million of its customers are without power. In New York City, Consolidated Edison said it might cut power to some vulnerable areas of the city Sunday, to minimize damage to equipment from flooding.
The current forecast places the Irene over New England by Monday morning, according to the U.S. National Weather Service.
President Barack Obama has declared federal emergencies in eight states ranging from North Carolina to New Hampshire, freeing up government support for help after the storm. According to The New York Times, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has 18 disaster-response teams in readiness, and over 100,000 National Guard members are also available to help.
But there is much people still in the path of the storm can do to prepare. Steps that residents should take include putting together an emergency kit with 72 hours' worth of food and water, developing a family communications plan, and listening to the radio or TV for information about risks and evacuations.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an alert Friday telling residents to have a plan for storing emergency medications and medical supplies safely, particularly those people with health concerns or those in areas where the power goes out.
Only lifesaving drugs should be taken if the container is contaminated; all other medications should be thrown away if they are exposed to contaminated flood water. Insulin loses its potency in warm temperatures, so try to keep it as cool as possible, the alert said. If you store it on ice, do not let it freeze, however.
If you have a "life-supporting" or "life-sustaining" device that depends on electricity, call your doctor's office for information on how to maintain function in the event of a loss of power.
Should flooding occur, do not consume any food that may have come into contact with floodwater. Check with your local health department to assess if tap water is safe to drink -- if it is not, drink bottled water or boil water for one minute before drinking.