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Around 65million people are in the path of the storm which has weakened slightly to a Category 2 with 110mph winds as it approaches the East Coast. Heightened waves of 6ft to 9ft have already started hitting North Carolina’s coast, which is first in line and home to some of America’s most heavily populated areas and priciest real estate. ‘One of my greatest nightmares was having a major hurricane go up the whole Northeast Coast,’ said Max Mayfield, ex-chief of the National Hurricane Center. ‘This is going to have an impact on the United States economy.’

Millions of energy customers are at risk of long-lasting power outages as strong winds and heavy rains threaten utility wires and poles.

The storm, with winds of 115mph, would be the strongest to strike the East Coast in seven years, and people are already getting out of the way. Tens of thousands fled North Carolina beach towns, farmers pulled up their crops, and the Navy ordered ships to sea so they could endure the punishing wind and waves in open water.

There were reports last night of gas stations going dry and ATMs running out of cash as cars went bumper to bumper on highways in a slow-motion scramble to heed forecasters’ warnings. With New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and Delaware all declaring states of emergency the cost of the hurricane would be vast. The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said damages could exceed most previous storms because so many people live along the East Coast and property values are high.

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