As a slightly weakened Hurricane Isabel sighted in on the Atlantic seaboard, fire horns blew warnings across North Carolina's Outer Banks and the Navy began moving ships out of berth and into open water to weather her walloping winds.
The much-predicted linebacker of a storm caused a jumble of activity from New York to South Carolina, where authorities asked residents to refrain from tree-cutting to minimize loose debris. In Virginia, the Air Force got ready to move dozens of F-15s from Langley Air Force Base to the calmer fields of Indiana's Grissom Air Force Base.
In an age of near-perfect storm tracking, the East Coast dug in with unprecedented preparations. The calm, massive mobilization was a nod to increased trust in weather forecasting. But it also showed, experts say, that Americans, despite false alarms and yo-yo-ing terrorist threat levels, haven't grown complacent in the face of danger.
"People are more aware of [the dangers] because of Sept. 11, and the blackout that occurred in August," says FEMA deputy director Michael Brown. "I think people are getting more accustomed to the fact that in this modern age, with all the hazards we face, it just makes good sense to be ready for anything."
While cooler waters took some of the steam out of a hurricane classified as a Category 5 storm over the weekend, experts said the danger was still high - not just for coastal dwellers, but for those in flood zones from Baltimore to Wilmington, N.C.
Indeed, forecasters said Isabel was still packing a mighty punch, especially if the front of her counter-clockwise spin comes in perpendicular to beaches, in which case residents could see a storm surge taller than a basketball hoop - along with sustained 100 m.p.h. winds and plenty of inland flooding. "This is likely to be a smash and rake as opposed to a brush and miss," says Patty McQuillan, a spokeswoman for North Carolina's Department of Crime Control and Public Safety.
Hurricane forecasters are getting closer each year in predicting accurate storm tracks - a far cry from when Hurricane Fran pulled a doozy in 1996, careening full-force into central North Carolina with only a few hours' warning.
Earlier this month, hurricane forecasters predicted the path of Hurricane Fabian nearly perfectly as it smashed into Bermuda. "If it was a competition, [forecasters] would have gotten a gold medal," says Hugh Willoughby, a professor at the International Hurricane Research Center in Miami. But "holes in the physics" of hurricane intensity still makes wind-speed predictions difficult, he says.
Forecasters are, in fact, in a period of greater vigilance - in part because the US has entered a period of unstable weather not seen since the storm-torn 18th century.
"There's a greater awareness of the potential threat of storms as a result of Hugo and Andrew, and the realization that these are events of magnitude much greater than almost any other type of emergency that we face," says Eugene Provenzo, an education professor at the University of Miami who studied the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew on South Florida culture. "People have built assumptions of a more peaceful weather pattern and they're now having to relearn how to deal with the kinds of storms that were taking place 200 years ago."
Preparing for a hurricane can cost up to $192 million in lost commerce - a sizable sum for a false alarm. But that didn't seem to concern the 769 permanent residents on vulnerable Ocracoke Island off the Outer Banks, where many evacuated Monday. Some 75,000 "OBXers" in all could be evacuated should the storm stay its course.
As far away as New York, preparations had begun; even Maryland was considering a state of emergency, so the governor could activate the National Guard. In North Carolina, 20 swift-water rescue boats began moving into position near the sounds.
In Washington, emergency officials set up a control-and-command center at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium and Maryland officials drained 1.5 million gallons of water out of Rocky Gorge Reservoir to make room for runoff. In Virginia, Gov. Mark Warner was considering another first on Tuesday: whether to turn I-64 into a one-lane highway heading west from the coast, giving beachdwellers an easier exit.
Even inland in Raleigh, slightly off the storm's predicted path, D-cell batteries were in short supply. Some stores near the coast were reporting shortages of plywood for boarding windows: A lot of the stock, apparently, has been diverted for rebuilding efforts in Iraq. Salesmen, meanwhile, saw the upside in promoting safety. "Storm's coming - we've got cellphone chargers," urged one at a Raleigh Radio Shack on Monday.
But amid the preparations, shortcomings also became apparent. In North Carolina, for instance, nearly half of the state's National Guardsmen are in Iraq, leaving only about 5,700 soldiers on alert.
Meanwhile, on the Outer Banks, apprehension rose as Isabel drew nearer. Still, after weathering Hurricanes Floyd, Dennis "and a little bit of Emily," Christina Willis and her family have decided to confront Isabel head-on.
"We're going to stay and keep the store safe, because chances are nobody's going to be able to get back here after the storm, if the bridges fall down," says Ms. Willis, whose parents own Lee Robinson's General Store in Hatteras Village.
Aside from the usual tips - stock up on water, food, and batteries, and prepare a first aid kit - here are a few other steps to help you batten down the hatches for Isabel.
• In the yard: Put away lawn furniture so the wind doesn't turn it into projectiles; tie down big pieces that can't go inside. While this is no time for tree trimming, it's a good idea to cut back dead limbs.
• Tape or board up windows to protect them - and protect people from flying glass.
• Turn refrigerators and freezers to their coldest levels and open them only rarely, to preserve food in case of power outages.
• Wrap important documents in plastic or seal them in watertight containers.
• Carry extra cash in case ATM machines break down or credit cards stop working.
• Make sure pets' ID tags are up to date in case of separation from them; keep a sturdy leash, manual can opener, and pet carrier on hand.
• Find the shut-off valves for your home's gas and water service in case of emergency.
• Store one gallon of drinking water per day for each person. Bathtubs, washing machines, and other large containers can also be filled for emergency use.
Source: Wire services and the Humane Society.