Chris Seward/The News & Observer/AP

Floodwaters surround this pickup truck Saturday on Highway 55 in New Bern, N.C. Hurricane Irene knocked out power and piers in North Carolina, clobbered Virginia with wind and churned up the coast Saturday to confront cities more accustomed to snowstorms than tropical storms. New York City emptied its streets and subways and waited with an eerie quiet.

The most powerful hurricane to threaten the Eastern Seaboard in almost two decades roared up the East Coast Saturday, bringing heavy rain and high wind that plunged homes into darkness, turned trees into projectiles and caused at least seven deaths.

After making landfall in North Carolina, with gusts up to 115 mph, Hurricane Irene continued its fierce and relentless march north toward New York City and New England. Governors and mayors spent much of Saturday pleading with people to get out of the storm's way.

The storm arrived at day's first light, at a point appropriately named Cape Lookout on the Outer Banks. As the hurricane spread beyond North

Carolina, the most densely populated stretch in the country all but ground to a halt.

Airlines canceled 9,000 flights along the East Coast, Amtrak stopped all trains from Boston south and Greyhound suspended bus service between Richmond, Va., and Boston for the rest of the weekend.

The subway stopped running in New York City. The three airports serving the Washington area remained open Saturday evening, but most flights had been scratched. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge was closed at 7:35 p.m. because of strong wind and unsafe driving conditions.

Power outages increased by the hour as winds toppled trees and power lines. More than 800,000 residential and business customers of Dominion Virginia Power were without electricity at 8:30 p.m., said Daisy Pridgen, a company spokeswoman. The Richmond area and southeastern Virginia were hit hardest.

In Maryland, about 85,000 customers were without power. Outages were expected to increase exponentially as the storm grew in ferocity through the night.

"This is a very dangerous time," Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell said around 8 p.m., warning that there could be tidal flooding in Hampton Roads with a storm surge of at least eight feet.

Three deaths in Virginia were among at least seven that were linked to the storm, including an 11-year-old boy who died in Newport News when a tree fell on his apartment.

The full extent of the damage won't be known until after the hurricane weakens, sometime late toay.

In Norfolk, as Irene heralded itself with sheets of rain and howling gusts of wind that peaked around 60 mph, a massive water-main break on a city street erupted about 4 p.m. and sprayed water like a geyser at least 30 feet in the air.

A Norfolk TV station reported that some residents had no water, particularly in low-lying areas of the city.

Even before Irene made landfall, President Barack Obama signed emergency declarations for nine states, allowing the federal government to pay some costs and assist in cleanup.

Cities up and down the East Coast were particularly vulnerable to Irene's fury.

Houses in Virginia Beach were sliced open, and some empty homes were looted.

And in New York City, where 370,000 people were ordered to evacuate, the city girded for the storm's crippling impact. Mayor Michael Bloomberg warned that high-rise buildings were likely to suspend elevator service so that no one would be trapped during a power outage.

Officials had been making increasingly dire predictions about Irene for days, and even veterans of other hurricanes scrambled to get out of the storm's path.

More than 2 million people were ordered to evacuate along the coast, and some shelters were overwhelmed.

McDonnell said that more than 3,000 people have been taken in at 74 shelters around Virginia. Hampton Roads served as an early warning of the storm's strength, even though it had been downgraded a notch to a Category 1 hurricane.

Five homes were severely damaged in the Sandbridge Beach area south of the city, with the roofs blown off two and collapsed walls in others, in what fire officials suspect was a small tornado or strong microburst, said Battalion Chief Tim Riley of the Virginia Beach Fire Department.

The homes were empty because occupants had heeded the mandatory evacuation order, he said.

Police vehicles swarmed into the area after several people reported looters in the damaged homes. Two people were arrested, a city spokeswoman said.

As the storm crept north, 500 miles wide at its core, it seemed to grow more menacing.

In Rehoboth Beach, Del., where streets began to flood by 4:30 p.m., it was difficult to see more than 150 yards on the beach by late afternoon.

The latest on what’s happening with Hurricane Irene — in its wake and in its path as it moves north along the Eastern Seaboard:

Right now

THE STORM: Weaker but still menacing, Hurricane Irene knocked out power and piers in North Carolina, reaches Virginia.

VIRGINIA COAST: Irene lashes Hampton Roads area on Virginia coast with hurricane force winds; moving north-northeast at 16 mph.

What’s next

WASHINGTON: Irene bears down on the nation’s capital, which hasn’t been hit by a hurricane in more than half a century.

NEW YORK CITY: High winds and heavy rains expected to hit New York City by Saturday night. Irene predicted to make landfall midday today as a Category 1 storm between New Jersey and Cape Cod.

NEW ENGLAND: Irene predicted to reach northern New England tonight.

STORM SURGE: Storm surges along coasts of Virginia, Delaware, the Jersey Shore, as well as New York Harbor and Long Island Sound.

TORNADOES: Tornado watches and warnings are in effect along the East Coast ahead of Irene.

NEW YORK CITY SHELTERS: City opens more than 90 evacuation shelters with room for about 70,000 people, only about 5,500 have checked in.

TRANSIT SHUTDOWN: Public transit in Philadelphia and New York shut down ahead of Irene.

TRAVEL: Travelers across the country are facing days of grief ahead as thousands of flights are canceled.

What’s done

OUTER BANKS: Irene made its official landfall just after first light near Cape Lookout, N.C., at the southern end of the Outer Banks, the ribbon of land that bows out into the Atlantic Ocean. Shorefront hotels and houses were lashed with waves. Two piers were destroyed, and at least one hospital was forced to run on generator power.

SURFER KILLED IN FLORIDA: Surfer is killed off the central Florida coast after being tossed off his board by heavy waves caused by Hurricane Irene. Also, a New Jersey tourist died when he drowned in the rough surf.

TREE KILLS BOY: An 11-year-old boy was killed when a tree crashed through a Virginia apartment building in Newport News, Va. Winds were gusting well above 60 mph in the area. Two others in Virginia also were killed by falling tree limbs.

MAN KILLED BY LIMB: A man was crushed by a large limb that blew off a tree in Nash County, N.C., outside Raleigh.

N.C. FLASH FLOOD: Flash flood warnings have been canceled for North Carolina.

Associated Press