Winds of up to 80 miles per hour whipped ashore Saturday morning, ripping power lines from poles and snapping trees in half. Hospitals, emergency call centers and other crucial facilities were holding up, but officials said it could get much worse as Irene churns north.
Gasoline supplies were falling as drivers top off their tanks on their way out of town. Pump prices rose about 3 cents per gallon overnight in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
The power losses were most heavily concentrated in Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach, N.C., where Progress Energy reported 250,000 customers without power, mostly residences.
"We expect those numbers to increase," Progress spokeswoman Julia Milstead said.
Dominion Resources reported outages for 167,000 of its customers in Virginia and North Carolina, while Duke Energy said 7,700 customers were in the dark. Pepco, which serves Maryland, reported 1,273 outages and Baltimore Gas & Electric said 279 of its customers were without power.
New York's biggest utility, Consolidated Edison, said it could cut power to the city's most vulnerable areas of the storm causes serious flooding. Spokesman Chris Olert says the utility doesn't expect to cut power before the storm hits, but flooding Sunday could bring a shutdown to areas including the southern tip of Manhattan.
Irene is expected to be a brutal test for Middle Atlantic States, which haven't seen a hurricane since 1999. The storm is expected to stay just offshore - and thus retain much of its power - as it inches up the coast from North Carolina to New England. When a hurricane hits land, it quickly loses steam.
The entire Eastern Seaboard lies in the storm's projected path, with flooding and damage from winds likely. North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island have declared emergencies. For the first time, New York City ordered people in low-lying areas to evacuate.
Power companies have called in several hundred workers from surrounding states to tend to the disaster. Crews were rushing out between bands in the hurricane, when the wind and rain eases. They're looking for the worst damage first at towering transmission lines, where an outage could put an entire county in the dark.
The storm already has shortened gasoline supplies as refueling barges wait out the storm off the coast. Experts are now bracing for widespread power outages that could switch off automated delivery networks for gasoline stations, forcing them to individually call terminals for more fuel. That would slow down fuel deliveries, and motorists likely would be stuck in longer lines as gas pumps dry up.
"Power is the lifeblood of oil supply on the East Coast," said Ben Brockwell of the Oil Price Information Service, which tracks gasoline shipments around the country.
Some gas stations in New Jersey reported that they'd run out of fuel. Those shortages could grow.
Retail gas prices were mostly unchanged in many cities that are expected to be hit this weekend. Rules against price gouging at gas stations took effect throughout Middle Atlantic states. Authorities will be on the lookout for stations that try to take advantage of panicked drivers.
Pump prices jumped as much as 3 cents per gallon overnight to $3.44 per gallon in Philadelphia and $3.49 in New Jersey's Atlantic-Cape May metro area. They seemed to hold in other areas, rising a penny or so on average in Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas.
Chris Kahn can be reached at http://twitter.com/ChrisKahnAP