Isabel eyes East Coast
Storm could cause 'extensive damage'
(CNN) -- The forecast ferocity of Hurricane Isabel prompted Congress to consider leaving Washington early, spurred the U.S. military to deploy some of its ships and aircraft, and had residents from North Carolina to Maryland closely monitoring the latest weather reports.
"If Isabel stays close to our forecast track and if it does make landfall as a major hurricane, it has the potential for large loss of life if we don't take it seriously and prepare," National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield told CNN.
At 5 a.m. EDT, Isabel was about 660 miles (1,065 kilometers) south-southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. The storm was moving northwest at 7 mph (11 kph), a motion that was expected to continue over the next 24 hours.
Satellite imagery and reports from a hurricane hunter plane showed the storm had become less organized overnight Tuesday.
The Hurricane Center said the may issue a hurricane watch for portions of the mid-Atlantic coast later Tuesday.
The three-day forecast track shows Isabel's center striking North Carolina's Pamlico Sound -- about 45 miles north of Morehead City and 120 miles east of Raleigh -- at 2 p.m. EDT Thursday, then turning north, slightly inland of Chesapeake Bay.
Isabel's maximum sustained winds have decreased to near 115 mph (185 kph), with higher gusts, making it a solid Category 3 storm. That was slightly weaker than the system had been over the weekend, but Mayfield warned that the storm was still "very dangerous."
"I would expect to see extensive damage to a pretty large section of the country" if the hurricane sticks to the forecast track, Mayfield told CNN. "It's been a long time since we've had a hurricane on this track."
As the hurricane lumbers closer to shore, the American Red Cross is warning that its Disaster Relief Fund is empty. The relief organization says coastal residents can still depend on it to provide food, clothing, shelter and medication replacement. But unless donations start pouring in, the Red Cross won't be able to provide financial assistance to hurricane victims. (Full story)
With his state possibly in the bull's-eye for Isabel, Virginia Gov. Mark Warner declared a state of emergency Monday, warning of the potential for significant coastal and inland flooding, damaging winds and tornadoes throughout the state.
Leaders in the U.S. House and Senate considered shortening their work week because of the storm. Leadership aides on both sides of the aisle said they would likely work through Wednesday before taking off, but the final call would not be made before Tuesday, when forecasters have a clearer picture of Isabel's path.
Although the center of Isabel is forecast to hit North Carolina Thursday afternoon, Mayfield said, the first tropical storm-force winds could show up at the coast late Wednesday. Those winds extend outward as far as 205 miles (328 kilometers) from the center.
"We could very well have a hurricane watch issued sometime even tomorrow morning, and then the warning will follow probably tomorrow evening," Mayfield said.
Large ocean swells and dangerous surf conditions are being seen along parts of the U.S. mid-Atlantic coastline.
North Carolina residents prepare for storm
Residents of Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, about 110 miles southwest of Pamlico Sound, were boarding up their windows Monday afternoon, and boat owners were moving their boats inland, CNN correspondent Jeff Flock reported.
"They really understand that this is a massive storm," Flock said.
In Manteo, North Carolina, Burwell Evans of Ace Hardware said business was up 25 percent Monday, with customers buying such items as batteries, flashlights and kerosene lamps. He said they are "selling batteries like crazy. ... Anything that goes with emergencies."
Evans, 80, has lived in the area for 53 years. He said he has been through many hurricanes and will not leave.
He also said he will not board his home or business. He noted that some businesses in the area are taping windows.
The U.S. Navy Atlantic Fleet has ordered its ships in the Norfolk, Virginia, area to deploy. The order to move about 40 ships and submarines and dozens of aircraft came late Monday afternoon, and the first ships will steam out early Tuesday, according to Navy officials.
There are about 70 warships currently in the immediate mid-Atlantic area. Forty of the ships in the Norfolk area are in a "ready" condition that would allow them to deploy on short notice; the remaining 24 are in maintenance or dry-dock, and will either be tied down or moved to designated inlet points to ride out the storm, Navy officials said.
In the first movement of military assets out of the storm's projected path, 21 F-15E aircraft are scheduled to fly from their home at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina to Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma on Tuesday.
Hundreds more Navy and Air Force fighter jets, transport planes and helicopters from Air Force bases at Langley, Virginia.; Charleston and Shaw, South Carolina; and Pope, North Carolina; could be ordered to evacuate to bases inland.
Plans for Air Force One, which is based at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, had not been completed.
Andrews has already declared "Hurricane Condition Four," which means 50 mph winds are anticipated in the next 72 hours. Military sources say the Air Force must decide whether to put Air Force One in a secure hangar facility or send it inland to a safer spot.
Billions lost to previous big storms
Category 3 storms are capable of substantial destruction on land. Small homes and buildings could suffer structural damage, large trees could be blown down and coastal flooding is possible. Terrain lower than 5 feet above sea level could be flooded eight miles or more inland.
Ed Rappaport, the deputy director of the NHC, said Isabel "will be one of the strongest storms seen in the landfall area in the last several decades."
Meteorologist Michelle Mainelli said no hurricane stronger than a Category 3 has scored a direct hit north of North Carolina in recorded history, though some have skirted the Atlantic coast.
Three of the four costliest storms in U.S. history made landfall in the Carolinas.
Hurricane Andrew, the Category 5 storm that slammed southern Florida in 1992, was the costliest, killing 58 people and causing $26.5 billion in damage. It crossed the Gulf of Mexico and was still a Category 3 storm when it hit Louisiana.
Hurricane Hugo came ashore as a Category 4 storm in South Carolina in September 1989, devastating Charleston, ripping through Charlotte, North Carolina, and then tracking well inward over western Virginia, through the Midwest and Great Lakes area and into Canada as it diminished.
It was the second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history, causing $7 billion in damage and killing 60 people.
Hurricane Fran, a Category 3 storm, made landfall in North Carolina in 1996, causing $3.2 billion in damage. More than 30 people died in the storm, which left some areas without power for more than two weeks. Severe flooding was reported north into New Jersey, and deaths were attributed to the storm as far north as Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr contributed to this article.