Virginia officials warned residents on Thursday to prepare for massive power outages, flooding and damage from Hurricane Irene comparable to that of Hurricane Isabel, which knocked out power to about 2 million people as it tore through the state in 2003.
Gov. Bob McDonnell declared a state of emergency in preparation of Irene's weekend arrival.
The declaration allows state resources, such as the National Guard, to be sent to Hampton Roads to help local officials. About 250 Guard members have been put on alert for hurricane duty.
McDonnell said he did not plan to order a statewide evacuation or reverse lanes on Interstate 64. But he cautioned eastern Virginia residents who live in low-lying areas to be ready in case of a local evacuation.
"At this time, 48 hours before any possible impact of Irene, it is imperative that, in an abundance of caution, all Virginians, state agencies and localities prepare for this storm," McDonnell said in a release.
The Virginia Department of Transportation said it would temporarily stop service at the Jamestown-Scotland Ferry on Friday because of the storm and send its ferry boats to Richmond to ride out the storm.
Old Dominion University in Norfolk planned to close its campus on Friday, Norfolk State University closed classes on Friday and Saturday and Christopher Newport University in Newport News canceled all campus activities, including classes, Friday through Monday.
Bob Spieldenner, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, said he expected some localities to issue evacuations Thursday or Friday.
Forecasters have yet to pinpoint where the hurricane will make landfall. Irene could hit North Carolina's Outer Banks on Saturday afternoon with winds around 115 mph, then head up the coast toward Virginia.
The U.S. Navy ordered dozens of ships out to safer waters earlier Thursday so they could better weather the storm. The Coast Guard is also moving its ships to designated safe havens such as marinas as the storm approaches. It is advising recreational boaters to move their vessels to safe harbors and is beginning to identify and track commercial vessels in case Hampton Roads' waterways need to be closed.
The Port of Virginia remained open for business Thursday, but workers were securing loose items and tearing down stacks of cargo containers to reduce their wind profiles.
While areas along the coast are expected to take the brunt of the winds, officials said tropical-force winds of up to 40 miles per hour can be expected as far inland as Richmond.
That means power outages are expected to be extensive, Spieldenner said. Whereas Isabel impacted about two-thirds of the state, he expects at least a third of the state to be affected by Irene.
"We could have folks who are going to be without power for a number of days," he said.
Many residents were already making preparations Thursday. Many store shelves in the area were running low on bottled water and other preparedness items.
Spieldenner said storm surges along the coast are expected to be up to 8 feet. Flash flooding in low-lying areas also is expected.
"They could use Isabel as a reference," he said. "Some areas it's going to be a little worse, some areas it's going to be better, but that can give the extent of power issues and issues at their home."
Norfolk and Virginia Beach officials have decided to make their parking garages free over the weekend to help residents protect their vehicles from flooding.
Isabel, a Category One hurricane when it reached Virginia in September 2003, killed more than 30 people and caused more than $1 billion in property damage. In addition to the power outages, half the state's population was without water and debris from the storm filled more than a half-million dump trucks.
McDonnell's declaration set in motion preparation by numerous state agencies.
The Virginia National Guard was mobilizing troops and equipment. Virginia State Police and the agency's swift water rescue team have been placed on stand-by and will be positioned to areas that are expected to be affected. The Virginia Department of Forestry prepared personnel to help with debris removal, while the state Department of Transportation has crews ready to clear roads.
Further north along the east coast New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie urged Jersey shore visitors to evacuate ahead of the storm.