Hurricane Irene continues to close on South Jersey and has already caused power outages and road closings.

As of 10:45 p.m., 98,465 customers in South Jersey were without electricity, according to Atlantic City Electric's website.

The worst outages were reported near Hammonton, Mays Landing and Cape May.

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Residents of barrier islands along Cape May County have been urged to stay home.

"Cape May County Emergency Management officials are urging all people who live on barrier islands in Cape May County that have not yet evacuated to remain at their present location," reads an e-mail from county Communications Director Lenora Boninfonte.

CBS3 in Philadelphia says the National Weather Service is reporting a tornado touched down in Vineland around 9:35 p.m.

Meanwhile, local roads are flooding. In Atlantic City, rising waters caused police to close Routes 30 and 40 both ways outside Absecon Island by Routes 30 and 40.

In Hamilton Township, the Hamilton Mall announced it would be closed Sunday.

Around 8 p.m., Cape May County announced it opened a shelter of last resort at the Middle Township Elementary School No. 2. The school is located at 101 West Pacific Avenue, Cape May Court House. The facility is not equipped with cots, blankets or pillows.

President Barack Obama has issued an emergency disaster declaration for the state. The declaration puts the Federal Emergency Management Agency in position to handle relief efforts after the storm and to pay 75 percent of the cost.

Forecasters say Irene's sustained winds have eased a bit, but are still at hurricane strength as the bulk of the powerful storm starts to re-emerge over the warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean after hitting landfall in North Carolina.

The National Weather Service said Saturday evening that winds were at 80 mph, down from 85 mph, but with higher gusts. The eye appears to be right at the border of North Carolina and Virginia as it slogs its way to the Northeast.

The center of the storm was expected off Cape May at about 4 a.m. today and near Atlantic City by 6 a.m., said Lee Robertson, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Mt. Holly. That timing could change depending on whether the storm speeds up or slows down.

South Jersey barrier islands, all of Cape May County and Atlantic County coastal areas have been under mandatory evacuation orders as Irene continues up the coastline.

The National Weather Service issued a tornado watch for Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Salem counties - as well as parts of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia - as the northern part of the storm passed through Saturday afternoon.

Irene has weakened as it moved north, but officials warned that the storm's vast size could mean that the region will experience high winds and heavy rain for as long as 24 hours. That long timeframe has officials worried the winds may cause extensive power outages and flooding, both along the coast and inland. Atlantic City Electric, which serves most of South Jersey, has warned of extended power outages and significant damage to its electrical infrastructure.

The region is under a hurricane watch that extends through late today, and major area rivers, including the Great Egg Harbor and Mullica, are under a flood advisory, with warnings that the forecast of five to 10 inches of rain could quickly cause severe flooding.

The rain comes as much of New Jersey already has received an unusually high amount of precipitation this summer, with more than 11 inches falling in parts of Cumberland County just a few weeks ago, causing severe flash flooding.

Robertson said the region can expect tropical storm-force winds for 12 to 24 hours and a storm surge of 3 to 6 feet, with a few locations close to 8 feet. The March Storm of 1962, for comparison, had a storm surge of 8.5 feet. Storm surge is additional water pushed by the wind on top of existing tide levels.

"High tide is going to be very high," he said.

Atlantic County Emergency Management Director Vince Jones said area officials expect the wind will bottle up water into back bays and that the water will not recede during low tide as it typically does. Severe beach erosion, along with extensive flooding from rains and storm surges, would affect the islands and low-lying mainland communities.

Today's new moon means tides will already be more extreme, with tides lower than average and higher than average. Low tide today along the Atlantic City oceanfront will be about 1 a.m.; high tide will be just after 7 a.m., according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The surge along the bayfront would have a more significant effect on low-lying areas because bulkheads, where they exist, are lower than ocean-side sand dunes, and emergency management officials said they expect the water to overtop bulkheads in many areas.

Stevens Institute of Technology professor Thomas Herrington said that Atlantic City's record high water mark was 9 feet, but Irene's surge, even without a direct hit, could easily surpass that mark.

Irene is the first major tropical storm to affect the region since Hurricane Gloria in 1985 and potentially the worst storm since the 1992 northeaster that caused a record water mark of 9.3 feet in Atlantic City. Forecasters were comparing Irene's anticipated impacts to those of the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944, which also caused a high water mark of 9.3 feet - destroying area boardwalks, piers and causeways in the process. Herrington said Irene could cause flooding that easily surpasses that record mark.

The first sprinkles from the outer rain bands began falling after sunrise. The early morning was humid and still, with no wind and ominous, dark clouds moving in multiple directions. Several people were bicycling along the Ventnor Boardwalk as the rain began to fall, but they were blocked by a police barricade if they wanted to ride into Atlantic City. One person was walking on the beach near Atlantic City, as swells on a gray ocean gradually increased as the storm approached.

Businesses on the islands have boarded up and many residents have left, with only a few cars left in neighborhoods that were crammed with cars a few days prior. Atlantic Avenue in Ventnor and Margate was almost empty, but streets in the Chelsea Heights section of Atlantic City still had plenty of cars as some residents prepared to pack up and leave. Others were taping windows or putting up plywood sheets as the rain began to fall.

Irene also will be a major test for the $13 million project to replenish beaches in Atlantic City and Ventnor, with work completed only a few weeks ago, and other beach-replenishment projects in Sea Isle City, Avalon and on Long Beach Island.

Contact Sarah Watson:


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