MILFORD, Del (Reuters) - Delaware residents headed inland on Saturday, under orders to evacuate homes within three-quarters of a mile of the Atlantic Ocean, Delaware River and other waterways ahead of Hurricane Irene.
The hurricane’s center path was expected to pass closer than previously forecast to Delaware and Ocean City, Maryland, the National Hurricane Center said.
It was likely to pass within 10 miles of Delaware’s southeasternmost corner and make a brief landfall along New Jersey’s barrier islands before slamming into Long Island and New England, it said.
At the popular tourist area of Rehoboth Beach, waves were 10- to 15-feet high and the shingles on beachfront houses were flapping in the wind. Streets were littered with tree branches, and overhead electrical wires were getting blown around.
“I’ve surfed some big waves and I wouldn’t even go near that,” said Ed Phillips, a 39-year-old contractor from Dewey, Delaware. He and his neighbor Everett Wodiska, 49, wearing a hard hat, were taking a walk to look at the powerful surf.
They said local officials had gone around the area with loud speakers, telling people to leave. Opting to stay, he said: “We live here.”
Delaware Governor Jack Markell said at a briefing that 8 to 12 inches of rain were expected, with flooding, when the powerful storm arrived on Saturday night.
By about 9 p.m. EDT, the center of Irene was located about 155 miles south of Dover, Delaware. But the massive storm was more than 500 miles wide with sustained winds of 80 miles per hour and was generating some suspected tornadoes.
Emergency workers rushed to the scene of what appeared to be a funnel cloud that touched down in Lewes, Delaware, at about 8:15 p.m. local time, damaging 10 to 15 homes, according to Troy Virden, one of the responding firefighters.
The second floor of one home sustained severe damage and many trees were damaged, Virden said.
The National Weather Service had not yet determined whether the damage was caused by a tornado, he said.
Hundreds of people took advantage of seven shelters opened up around Delaware.
Robert Hudson, a 64-year-old military retiree, said he came to a shelter at Milford High School out of concern for his step-daughter, granddaughter and wife.
“Things can be replaced, but life can’t be,” he said.
For Lelia Stone, 80, who has lived in Seaford, Delaware since 1967, the storm marked the first time she has ever been forced to flee her home.
She brought to the shelter “everything but the kitchen stove,” including a Pomeranian named Sugar Bear, she said.
Nearby, Christina Schuyler, a 22-year-old stay-at-home mother from Allendale, passed the time playing cards. She said she was unimpressed by the storm and the dire predictions.
“It’s just some wind,” she said, adding that she was looking forward to Sunday when she could say “I told you so.”
Delmarva Power reported that more than 2,000 of its customers in Delaware and Maryland had lost electric service as the first effects of Irene were being felt.
At the Gray Hare Tavern in Rehoboth Beach, a handful of people passed the day shooting pool and chatting about the storm.
Jonathan Walker, 60, said he bought a chainsaw to use in the storm’s clean-up.
“A lot of local people can make a lot of money off a storm,” said his son, Jonathan Walker II.
Jesse and Karen Burns, of Dewey Beach, also took a walk to see the surf in Rehoboth. They said they hoped the storm would help the local hotel industry, where they work.
“We could see a surge of business when people come next week to see what happened,” she said.
Additional reporting by Molly O'Toole in Washington and David Warner; Writing by Ellen Wulfhorst; Editing by Peter Bohan and David Bailey