By CHRIS KAHN, AP Energy Writer
More than 4 million homes and businesses were without power Sunday morning as Hurricane Irene continued to roar up the East Coast and took aim at the New York City area and New England.
Winds of up to 115 miles per hour whipped across the Eastern Seaboard, 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.
More than 1.3 million of the homes and businesses without power were in Virginia and North Carolina, which bore the brunt of Irene’s initial march. Maryland, Delaware and Washington, D.C. had about three-quarters of a million outages combined.
New Jersey and Pennsylvania each had about three-quarters of a million without power, and hundreds of thousands of other customers were in the dark in New York and Connecticut.
Officials in southern and mid-Atlantic states had warned of mass power outages, with some recalling the destructive Hurricane Isabel in 2003, and their predictions were confirmed after Irene moved over North Carolina as a Category 1 storm early Saturday.
New York’s biggest utility, Consolidated Edison, said it could cut power to the city’s most vulnerable areas if the storm causes serious flooding. Salt water and rain can damage electrical equipment.
ConEd operations chief John Miksad said the utility didn’t expect to cut power before the storm hits, but flooding Sunday could bring a shutdown to areas including the southern tip of Manhattan. That would cut off power to major Wall Street institutions through parts of next week.
The New York Stock Exchange has backup generators and can run on its own, a spokesman said. The exchange expects to open as usual Monday morning, though it may change plans depending on the severity of the storm.
New York is regularly blasted by winter storms, but Miksad said this hurricane will be different. Irene’s wind will pack a stronger punch than a nor’easter last March that knocked out power to 175,000 customers, he said.
ConEd has called in crews from as far as Colorado to help repair damage from the storm.
Spokesmen for the utilities said Saturday that hundreds more crews from as far away as Alabama, Michigan and Quebec are ready to help out in Connecticut.
Officials noted that crews wouldn’t begin restoring power until conditions are safe. Hurricane-force winds are expected to hit the state later Sunday morning.
Winds have already caused flooding and damage to many areas. 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 help. Crews were rushing out between bands in the hurricane, when the wind and rain ease. They’re looking for damage first at towering transmission lines, where an outage could put an entire county in the dark.
Gasoline supplies fell as drivers filled up before leaving town or just topped off their tanks as a precaution before the storm hit. Pump prices rose about 3 cents per gallon overnight in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Refueling barges waited out the storm off the coast, also causing gasoline supplies to fall. Widespread power outages could lead to fuel shortages as gas stations are no longer able to pump gas or have trouble replenishing their own gas supplies.
“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 become more widespread.
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 looking for stations that try to take advantage of panicked drivers.
Pump prices were up slightly overnight, as much as 3 cents per gallon, to $3.44 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.
The Colonial Pipeline, which transports gasoline and other fuels from the Gulf Coast to the Northeast, stopped fuel deliveries to Selma, N.C., and to Virginia’s Tidewater area as the storm knocked out power. Pipeline spokesman Steve Baker said the pipeline may cut off deliveries further in Virginia and Maryland as the storm moves north.
Refineries, which make fuel from oil, have started to slow operations as Irene approaches.
OPIS says East Coast refineries will cut operating rates 10 to 25 percent in the next few days. Refineries in the Gulf Coast and the West should be able to keep supplies flowing to the rest of the country.
Refineries along the Louisiana Coast produce more than three times the gasoline and fuel of their East Coast counterparts, according to the Energy Information Administration. East Coast demand is going to fall as businesses close and people hunker down at home.
Chris Kahn can be reached at http://twitter.com/ChrisKahnAP
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)