Hurricane Irene howled ashore in North Carolina with heavy winds, rain and surf on Saturday on a path threatening the densely populated U.S. East Coast with flooding and power outages.

The eye of the storm crossed the North Carolina coast near Cape Lookout around 7:30 a.m. EDT (1130 GMT), forecasters at the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

Irene was moving north-northeast along the coast and was expected to remain a hurricane as it hit the mid-Atlantic states on Saturday night and New England on Sunday.

With winds of 85 miles per hour (140 km per hour), Irene had weakened to a Category 1 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson intensity scale, but forecasters warned that it remained a large and dangerous storm.

New York City ordered unprecedented evacuations and transit shutdowns as states from the Carolinas to Maine declared emergencies due to Irene, whose nearly 600 mile width guaranteed a stormy weekend for tens of millions of people.

At daybreak on the North Carolina coast, winds howled through the power lines, felling trees, rain fell in sheets and some streets were flooded.

In the port and holiday city of Wilmington, North Carolina, the streets were empty and the air was filled with the sound of pine trees cracking.

One unidentified man in the Wilmington area was washed away and feared to have drowned, emergency workers said.

Progress Energy, the local electrical utility, projected 125,000 customers throughout coastal North Carolina were without power.

Warren Lee, New Hanover County's director of emergency management, said the county was still evaluating damage in the Wilmington area but that, We fared pretty well, given the predictions we had.

In summer beach season, hundreds of thousands of residents and vacationers had evacuated from Irene's path. Supermarkets and hardware stores were inundated with people stocking up on food, water, flashlights, batteries, generators and other supplies.

Our number of customers has tripled in the last day or two as people actually said 'Wow, this thing is going to happen,' said Jack Gurnon, owner of a hardware store in Boston.

Airlines canceled nearly 7,000 flights over the weekend and all three New York area airports were to close to incoming flights at noon on Saturday.

President Barack Obama said the storm could be extremely dangerous and costly for a nation that recalls the destruction in 2005 from Hurricane Katrina, which swamped New Orleans, killed up to 1,800 people and caused $80 billion in damage.