Hurricane Isabel claims six lives

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AT least six people are thought to have died and millions have been left without electricity on America’s east coast as Hurricane Isabel slammed ashore.

Waves 40ft high and 100mph winds lashed the coastline as the storm passed over land, dumping up to 10in of rain in its wake.

After cutting a path of destruction through the North Carolina and Virginia shorelines the storm travelled northwest toward Maryland and Pennsylvania and left carnage and widespread flooding in its wake.

At least six deaths were blamed on Isabel, which was today officially downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm as it weakened.

Now heading towards Canada the storm is still expected to cause considerable further damage.

The federal government shut down yesterday as the storm bore down on the nation’s capital and remained closed on today.

Flooding, power outages and downed trees paralysed the Washington area.

Museums were shut and the monuments, usually crowded with tourists, stood as abandoned. Most of Congress left town before the storm. The capital’s Metro subway and bus system closed and Amtrak halted virtually all train service south of Washington.

Officials reported two tornado sightings near Emporia and Norfolk, in southeastern Virginia.

Evidence of widespread and costly damage was mounting. There was flooding, thousands of trees down and hundreds of houses damaged, emergency management officials said.

"We have trees on houses everywhere. We have roofs that have been blown off," said J.D. Brickhouse, a manager of Tyrell County, North Carolina. More than 350,000 people were without power in the state.

In all, at least 2.8 million homes and businesses had lost power from the Carolinas to Pennsylvania and nearly a quarter of a million people were forced from their homes

A tunnel that normally channels 50,000 cars a day between Norfolk and Portsmouth in southern Virginia had completely flooded, state Transportation Commission Philip Shucet said.

Virginia Emergency Management coordinator Michael Cline said the Potomac River, which separates Virginia from Washington and Maryland as it runs into the Chesapeake Bay, was experiencing a six to eight-foot storm surge.

The storm killed a utility repairman in North Carolina who was trying to restore power in coastal Carteret County. On Virginia’s Eastern Shore, a person was killed when a tree fell on a mobile home.

There were also at least three traffic deaths blamed on the storm in North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland.

Isabel peaked with sustained winds of 100 mph (160 kph) as it approached the Outer Banks islands of North Carolina. Its eye came ashore near Ocracoke Island at 4pm yesterday.

Airlines cancelled more than 2000 flights at 19 airports and moved aircraft out of Isabel’s path, disrupting flight schedules nationwide. All three Washington-area airports were shut down. New York airports cancelled more than 200 flights.

While Isabel had weakened, it remained a very dangerous storm. A big threat was from flooding, especially in mountainous rural Virginia and West Virginia, where flash flooding is common in storms.

The danger is especially severe because the region is saturated from months of above-normal rainfall.

Federal and local offices and schools were closed and transport services suspended.