NAGS HEAD, N.C. – Hurricane Isabel (search) weakened into a tropical storm Thursday evening as it pushed its way up the East Coast, but not before leaving 2.6 million people without electricity and disrupting air travel. Coastal residents and state officials fear widespread flooding.
Isabel was blamed for at least nine deaths. Seven people were killed in storm-related traffic accidents, one death was blamed on a falling tree and a utility employee was electrocuted.
Driving rain and storm surges have already caused the coast's worst flooding in 70 years. At least one hotel in Kill Devil Hills, N.C., (search) collapsed into the ocean.
Isabel downed trees, snarled air traffic and caused widespread power outages that affected more than 1.77 million people in Virginia and North Carolina alone.
President Bush declared a major disaster in North Carolina and Virginia, ordering federal aid to the states. Federal assistance can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, and for low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses.
The Category 2 storm weakened as it approached shore early Thursday afternoon, but the potential for heavy rains and storm surges of up to 8 feet still posed a major threat to the already soggy East. Forecasters were worried that the worst damage would come from flooding far inland.
Isabel's top sustained wind eased to around 65 mph by late evening and was expected to to continue to weaken.
The massive eye of Isabel came ashore just south of Ocracoke Island (search), N.C., around 1 p.m. and crossed the Outer Banks into Pamlico Sound as the storm's 100 mph high winds battered the mid-Atlantic coast and left hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses without power.
"A lot of trees are down -- there's one down across the garage," Rudy Austin said as he looked out on his yard in Ocracoke surrounded by a knee-deep soup of sea water and debris. "There's a lot of stuff floating around: boards and buoys and boxes and young'uns' plastic toys."
As of 5 p.m. Thursday, about 950,000 customers in Virginia were without power, as were 300,000 in North Carolina. More than 430,000 customers in Maryland, 78,000 in the District of Columbia and 100,000 in New Jersey also lost power.
"We have plans in place that really can minimize, hopefully, the loss of lives and property," Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson (search) told Fox News, adding that relief command centers have been set up in Washington, D.C., and major cities in Virginia and North Carolina.
At 11 p.m. EDT, the center of the storm was about 35 miles west of Richmond Virginia. It had picked up speed, moving at 23 mph northwest. It was expected to stay at a similar strength and could spawn isolated tornadoes in eastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia.
Forecasters thought it could slow down once it hit land.
But National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield (search) said fast-moving Isabel still poses a threat because of its dimensions -- about the size of Colorado -- and its potential to bring 6 to 10 inches of rain and flooding to an East Coast already sodden from one of the wettest summers in years.
"This is certainly not over for people experiencing Hurricane Isabel," he said. "This hurricane will not be remembered for how strong it is. It will be remembered for how large it is."
There were isolated areas of damage and distress on the Outer Banks and inland areas nearby.
In Harlowe, a small community about 25 miles inland, about 30 to 40 homes were destroyed, either by winds, falling trees or flooding, said Jeremy Brown, chief of Harlowe's volunteer fire department. He estimated about 200 homes were flooded.
Firefighters rescued a mother and her two children who were stranded by the flood waters, Brown said. But the flooding receded quickly, said resident Joe Fernandez, who watched the water rise over his street and yard.
"It was like a toilet flushing. It just came up and went down," Fernandez said.
Most of the coastal barrier islands were nearly empty as rain flew at a 45-degree angle, driven by wind that turned sand grains into darts and howled like jet engines.
"It's like a sand blaster. You need a face shield," said Nick McClintock, a pipefitter who used his welding mask to watch 15-foot waves at Nags Head. Seas up to 33 feet were reported off the Virginia coast.
Virginia Beach local police suggested that stragglers write their names in permanent marker on their forearms so they can be identified if they are injured or killed.
Virginia has 89 shelters are open with more than 6,500 refugees. About 26,000 people have been evacuated from low-lying areas in the coastal and lower Chesapeake Bay basin areas.
Isabel was expected to move north through North Carolina into eastern Virginia, then into eastern Pennsylvania and over Lake Erie before dissipating in Canada by Saturday.
The governors of Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and the mayor of Washington, D.C., declared states of emergency, readying the National Guard.
"The good news is, it's moving a little bit faster than we thought it was so it may be making landfall when the tides recede, which is good news for is in terms of the storm surge," North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley told Fox News around noon Thursday.
As for those who chose not to evacuate, Easley said: "Every person has an inalienable right to make a fool of themselves and some of them want to exercise that right during a hurricane."
Because of the already wet soil from a rainy summer, the U.S. Geological Survey said there was a potential of landslides in West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York.
Moving to Higher Ground
More than 300,000 people in North Carolina and Virginia were urged to move to higher ground.
But a few thousand souls decided to stick it out to see if Isabel would shatter North Carolina's "Crystal Coast."
At Howard's Pub on isolated Ocracoke Island, bartender James Tucker said five other employees resolved to "hang out and drink beer until the cable runs out."
Among the hardest hit areas was Kill Devil Hills, a beach town in North Carolina. The Sea Ranch Hotel collapsed while two other hotels -- the Holiday Inn and the Ramada Inn -- were getting hammered. The second-floor facade of the Ramada Inn was falling into the ocean piece by piece, according to local reports.
Shutting Everything Down
In the nation's capital, federal and district offices closed and Congress canceled votes so members could return home. Bus and subway service was suspended Thursday.
Bush said Thursday he would "batten down the hatches" at the Camp David presidential retreat.
"We're very well prepared for Hurricane Isabel," Bush told reporters.
The Federal Aviation Administration closed its air traffic control tower in Norfolk, Va., and flight arrivals at New York's LaGuardia Airport were delayed up to six hours. Well over 1,500 flights were canceled for airports in the major eastern cities were canceled.
The Air Force moved one of the jumbo 747s known as Air Force One from Andrews Air Force Base, Md., to Robins Air Force Base in Warner Robins, Ga., said White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan. A 757 sometimes used by the president was also flown to Georgia as a precaution.
Numerous schools closed in North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia and the District of Columbia.
Virginia Gov. Mark Warner said during a 2:30 p.m. press conference that the next few hours are "critical" as Isabel moves full force into Virginia. While eastern Virginia is already getting tropical-storm-strength winds, they still haven't hit central Virginia yet.
West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise anticipated heavy flooding in the Potomac River basin. Pennsylvania officials said the ground was so sodden that it would take as little as 2 to 4 inches of rain to cause rivers and creeks to spill their banks. Western Maryland officials were preparing for 10 inches of rain.
Wastewater treatment plants in some Virginia communities experienced problems as a result of flooding and power outages.
Greg Patterson, a spokesman for Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, said residents were expected to leave low-lying areas by noon Thursday.
"They are subject to a fine and up to six months in jail if they don't, but that's not the goal here," he said.
'Get the Heck Out of Here'
John and Rita Razze's home in Chadds Ford, Pa., flooded with rain and river water earlier this week. They're worried that the ground would be unable to absorb anymore.
"Usually we stay here and wait it out," said John Razze, who moved valuables to the second floor. "This time, we're going to get the heck out of here."
At historic Jamestown, Va., archaeologists blanketed a dig of the first permanent English settlement in America. More than 500,000 artifacts from Jamestown Island are stored in a storm-proof vault.
In Kill Devil Hills, N.C., museum curators moved artifacts and photographs collected for the centennial celebration of the Wright brothers' first flight.
Maryland State Police and Department of Natural Resources officers traveled by boat to low-lying islands in the Chesapeake Bay to give the holdouts a final warning: leave now or the state isn't responsible.
Rose Hatcher in North Carolina still had power at her house on the sound at Harker's Island and said she and her husband planned to ride out Isabel.
"We're sitting back watching a DVD and letting it blow," she said, adding the movie they chose was "Big Mama's House." "We thought about putting 'Twister' in but we decided that wasn't quite appropriate."
Fox News' Jeff Goldblatt, Liza Porteus, Orlando Salinas, Jonathan Serrie and The Associated Press contributed to this report.