America feels the wrath of Isabel

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AS HURRICANE Isabel howled ashore, with 105mph winds, 40ft-high waves and torrential rain, most of those ordered to leave North Carolina’s vulnerable coast had already fled. Wally Courie stayed put.

"I’m a Vietnam veteran," he said. "I’ve got PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. It’s called a flattening effect. I’ve been through so much ... hardly anything gets to me anymore."

As Mr Courie hunkered down in his home just off Sportsman’s Pier in Atlantic Beach, staff at Howard’s Pub on the isolated Ocracoke Island were also determined to ignore warnings to head inland.

James Tucker, a barman, said he and five other employees had yesterday resolved to "hang out and drink beer until the cable [television] runs out". The tourists, he said, were all gone; that was because "rookies tend to get scared".

Whether brave or foolhardy, they were in the minority. Most took the view of Washington’s mayor, Anthony Williams.

"It is big; it is ugly," he said. "It is a bad storm and it is heading our way."

George Bush, the president of the United States, last night declared parts of North Carolina a major disaster area - a move that will free-up federal funds to aid the recovery efforts. Mr Bush left Washington for his Camp David retreat on Wednesday evening, a day early, to beat the expected arrival of the hurricane.

The ominous Category 5 rating, which made Isabel the most closely-watched hurricane in years, had been downgraded by the time it hit land, but it still closed government buildings in Washington, saw hundreds of thousands of people evacuated and more than 1,500 flights cancelled.

Crashing waves along the Outer Banks of North Carolina crumpled the deck of an oceanfront hotel and gouged chunks out of the grass-covered dunes. At Virginia Beach, Virginia, huge waves destroyed part of a 400ft-long pier. Almost one million customers lost power as the wind and rain downed trees and snapped electricity cables. Isabel had been gusting at up to 160mph in the Atlantic Ocean, and still pounded ashore at 105mph. "This is still a very powerful storm," said Max Mayfield, the director of a hurricane centre, after the eye reached land. "This is a very large hurricane and very well-defined."

There were no immediate reports of deaths, but states of emergency were declared in North Carolina, Virginia, Washington DC, Maryland, West Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania. Throughout the region, shelters opened, schools closed and residents were braced for disruption.

The eye of the hurricane was near Ocracoke Island, famous as the place where the pirate Blackbeard was killed in battle with the British Navy, offering Mr Tucker and his colleagues ample opportunity to prove their mettle.

Most of the 300,000 people in North Carolina and Virginia who were urged to move to higher ground did so - unlike Mr Tucker and friends. In Virginia Beach, police suggested those who ignored evacuation orders write their names in permanent marker on their forearms so they could be identified if they are injured or killed.

"We’re seeing trees blowing like crazy and quite a bit of rain coming down," a Carteret County manager, Mary Ann Hinshaw, said with a degree of understatement from Beaufort, on the North Carolina coast.

Nearly 6,000 North Carolina residents spent Wednesday night in shelters. Bridges to some of the islands of the Outer Banks were closed because of the heavy winds. North Carolina’s cotton, soybean and sweet potato fields were expected to suffer significant damage.

In Virginia, the National Guard had helicopters ready to rescue anyone stranded by floods, and more than 6,300 people packed into shelters.

"If you’re in that area where there was a mandatory evacuation order, you need to get out," said a Virginia emergency management co-ordinator, Michael Cline.

In Washington, the federal government was closed except for emergency personnel and worried residents sandbagged homes to keep water out. Most of the representatives in Congress left the city, and the Defence Department, busy with the Iraq war, relied on emergency staff.

The capital’s Metro subway and bus system closed and Amtrak halted virtually all train services south of Washington.

The National Zoo moved animals inside and lowered water levels in the moats around the lion and tiger enclosures to accommodate the rainfall.

With 19 major airports closed, skies along the East Coast were virtually clear of commercial air traffic, disrupting flight schedules nationwide. British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and British Midland cancelled flights from Britain to Washington, DC and Baltimore.

Flights at LaGuardia Airport in New York were delayed by six hours because of heavy wind gusts that reduced runway operations. Flights were also delayed at Atlanta Hartsfield, the world’s busiest airport.

Speaking from Camp David, Mr Bush reassured the nation the US was "very well prepared" for hurricane Isabel.

"We have got pre-positioned equipment in place; proper warnings have gone out and the communication systems are up and running," he said. "I will be monitoring the situation. I will be in close contact with the emergency management people."

Isabel is now rated a strong Category 2 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale measuring hurricanes’ destructive power. Category 2 storms can badly damage mobile homes and roofs, rip down electricity cables and mobile-phone towers and block roads with felled trees and utility pylons.

Forecasters said Isabel was expected to maintain its status as a hurricane, with sustained wind of at least 119kph (74mph), for about 12 hours after reaching land. It was expected to move north across North Carolina and Virginia and then take a path through western Pennsylvania and western New York State before dissipating in Canada tomorrow.

The biggest threat is likely to come from flooding. Isabel could dropp ten inches (25 cm) of rain on a region saturated from months of above-normal rainfall.