MOREHEAD CITY, N.C. — The misery known as Hurricane Irene propelled its crashing waves, shrieking wind and slashing rain toward one of the continent’s most densely populated regions Saturday, targeting the Northeast after slicing through much of North Carolina.

Lined up like bowling pins as a weakening but still dangerous Irene rolled along the coast and the I-95 corridor were Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, the entire state of New Jersey, the New York City metropolitan area, Hartford, Boston and points as far north as Canada.

Potentially affected population: At least 55 million people in 13 states, including 370,000 New York City residents ordered to flee an approaching storm for the first time in memory. “Let’s stop thinking this is something we can play with,” said Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Potential damage: Many billions of dollars. Magnitude of misery and inconvenience: Incalculable.

The nation’s run of hurricane luck had come to an end — the three-year respite from land-falling U.S. hurricanes now over as reports of casualties, structural damage and power outages began flowing in. At least three deaths were reported, and that’s likely to only be the beginning.

“Say a prayer for us in North Carolina, and we will for the rest of the East Coast,” North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue said as the mammoth swirl of wind, rain and elevated surf rocked her state.

Among the gravest dangers: Extensive flooding along the coast and in many areas inland, as the storm’s storm surge — a wall of water that heralds the arrival of the core — combines with Irene’s prodigious rain, up to 15 inches of it, to reverse the flow of rivers and swamp vast areas already saturated by heavy summer downpours.

Another serious danger: The combination of high winds and tall buildings in New York City, Philadelphia, Atlantic City and other cities in the region. Hurricane winds can be one or more categories higher near the top of tall buildings than they are on the ground.

“Yes, we’re concerned about the tall buildings in Atlantic City,” said New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

A Category 1 storm at landfall Saturday morning, Irene crashed its core into North Carolina’s Outer Banks just west of Cape Lookout with 85-mph wind, thick sheets of charcoal-colored rain, and a 4-to-9-foot coastal storm surge topped by battering waves. It then sliced diagonally through the state’s eastern quadrant.

“We’re just sitting here watching trees break,” said Todd Riddick, who unwisely decided to stay beyond in Kill Devil Hills on the Outer Banks.

As Irene proceeded on its path, casualty and damage reports mounted.

Authorities said a young boy in Newport News, Va., and a man in suburban Raleigh, N.C., were crushed to death by falling tree limbs, a man in Onslow County, N.C., suffered a fatal heart attack as he nailed plywood over the windows of his home, a 27-year-old man was missing in the area around the swollen Northeast Cape Fear River, an incautious surfer was reportedly killed along coastal Virginia and rough waters injured six people in Florida.

Cascading power outages left at least 400,000 customers without electricity and a hospital in Morehead City resorting to auxiliary generators. Trees tumbled to the ground. Powerful waves splintered at least two piers, and the wind claimed the roof of a car dealership and inflicted other structural damage.

Downtown Washington, N.C., was flooded with 18 inches to two feet of water. Some of the worst flooding was reported in New Bern, N.C., where the storm pushed water from the Pamlico Sound up the Neuse River and into the city of about 30,000 people. New Bern was under a state of emergency and 60 percent of its residents were without power, according to spokeswoman Colleen Roberts.

Similar coastal flooding was reported in countless locations, and authorities warned that floods also would sweep through many inland areas — regardless of Irene’s rating on the five-category Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale.

“When we talk about the category of hurricanes, that does not explain all of the risk,” said Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “Even though this may be a Category 1 storm, rainfall amounts are not tied to the category of the storm. Some of the most devastating floods have been tied to tropical storms.”

In recent decades, floods associated with hurricanes have killed far more people than the storms’ wind — many of the victims driving unknowingly into over-burdened canals or runaway streams.

Officially, the storm’s core made its U.S. landfall around 7:30 a.m. EDT near Cape Lookout, N.C., but that was just a detail for the record books. More to the point, Irene’s hurricane-force winds of more than 74 mph spread 90 miles in nearly every direction, its tropical storm-force winds of more than 39 mph reached 260 miles from the center, and its rain bands stretched even farther.

As Irene’s center cruised through North Carolina, its feeder bands already pressure-washed areas as far away as New Jersey and New York City.

“The winds inland will catch all the major cities,” said Bill Read, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami. “The Baltimore-Washington area may be on the westernmost edge of it, but certainly Philadelphia, New York and Boston are all players for the adverse conditions as Irene makes its path up the coast.”

Hurricane warnings or watches covered the East Coast from North Carolina into Massachusetts, and more than 2 million people were ordered or were strongly advised or decided on their own to evacuate inland.

Governors throughout the region declared states of emergency and President Barack Obama issued federal emergency declarations long before Irene arrived. Countless events were canceled. Thousands of airline flights were grounded, particularly into and out of New York City, where the metropolitan area’s three major airports sit close to the water.

Although Irene’s sustained winds were slowly diminishing, the storm was expected to remain a hurricane or a very strong tropical storm during its voyage through the mid-Atlantic states and New England.

All in all, Irene merited — and received — nearly everyone’s attention from the Carolinas to the Canadian border.

“There’s something about when a storm gets a name — it elevates everyone’s anxiety,” said Teal Britton, spokeswoman for the Horry County school system in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Irene was the first hurricane to strike the United States since Ike raked Texas in September 2008, its sphere of influence was enormous, and its crosshairs hovered over a population more familiar with blizzards — and, after this past week, earthquakes — than hurricanes.

Forecasters said Irene should continue to weaken slowly as its center reaches the New York area Sunday morning and Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine later Sunday, but they warned residents there and all along the coast about the hazards of complacency.

Many residents of the targeted area — particularly in New England — live in wood-framed homes not built to the hurricane-resistant standards of many Southern states, and many of those homes are surrounded by stands of trees that nature hasn’t pruned in decades.

Back in the South, where residents know a thing or two about hurricanes — or should, Kristen Ryce was found in Nags Head, on North Carolina’s Outer Banks a few hours before Irene’s squalls arrived.

She was making her own sandbags, using an ice scoop to shove sand into plastic bags, even as persistent wind carved the dunes and roused the ocean behind her. Refusing to heed evacuation orders, she stacked the bags at her front door, a quarter mile from the beach.

“We’ve got generators, we’ve got gas, but we just didn’t have sand bags,” said Ryce, 36. “I’m making my own.”

Maybe not the best idea.

Forecasters predicted that after leaving North Carolina behind, the storm’s most dangerous component — the central eye wall that surrounds its core — would bounce northeastward just offshore Saturday and early Sunday, running closely parallel to Richmond, Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Trenton and Newark.

In Washington, D.C., utility officials preemptively warned residents that it might take days to restore electricity, and many events were canceled or postponed, including Sunday’s dedication of a 30-foot sculpture of the late Martin Luther King Jr. Officials said they hoped to reschedule that long-anticipated event in September or October.

New York City could confront a much worse scenario. The forecast track carried Irene directly over the city or perilously close to it Sunday morning, and the potential consequences were many.

“There will be, unfortunately, a serious storm coming in,” Mayor Bloomberg said.

Given Irene’s angle of attack and its relatively slow forward speed of 15 mph, the system seemed certain to pile up immense volumes of seawater, particularly along the Jersey shore, on Long Island and elsewhere in the New York City metropolitan area

Moreover, sustained wind from hurricanes can reveal and exploit design and construction faults in skyscrapers and other high-rise buildings. No one expected a widespread problem with the stability of the many tall buildings in Washington, Philadelphia, Atlantic City and Manhattan. At the same time, however, glass windows could be vulnerable.

In 2005, Hurricane Wilma, with sustained winds and gusts that rarely, if ever, exceeded 100 mph, blew out thousands of windows in downtown Miami and Fort Lauderdale, raining shards of glass on the streets below.

With all of that in mind, Bloomberg ordered 370,000 coastal residents of all five boroughs to evacuate their homes. He said it was the first time in city history that a mandatory evacuation order of that size had been issued. Among the areas affected: Coney Island, the Rockaways and Wall Street and the rest of the financial district in Lower Manhattan, an appropriately named area that has been swamped by extreme flooding during New York’s rare hurricane encounters of the past.

In addition, the city’s extensive bus and 840-mile subway system halted operations at noon. Transit officials said they were concerned about the effect of Irene’s wind on subway cars that occasionally run above ground, but emergency managers long have worried about the possibility that subway tunnels could channel flood waters from one part of the city to another.

So, now, for one of the few times in history, it was New York City’s turn to deal with a hurricane.

“We don’t have a lot of experience with hurricanes,” Bloomberg said. “We’ve watched as they’ve ravaged other parts of the nation. Thank God we haven’t had that kind of destruction here, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t happen. It can and we must be prepared.”

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Martin Merzer is a McClatchy special correspondent. Steve Lyttle and Ely Portillo of the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, Gina Vasselli of the (Myrtle Beach, S.C.) Sun News and John Frank, Jack Hagel and Bruce Siceloff of The (Raleigh, N.C.) News & Observer contributed to this report.

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(c)2011 the McClatchy Washington Bureau

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AP Multimedia Information on Irene:

http://hosted.ap.org/interactives/2011/hurricanes-2011/index.html