By Tom Hals
MILFORD, Delaware (Reuters) - Delaware residents headed inland on Saturday, under orders to evacuate homes within three-quarters of a mile of the Atlantic Ocean, Delaware River and other waterways ahead of Hurricane Irene.
The hurricane's center path was expected to pass closer than previously forecast to Delaware and Ocean City, Md., the National Hurricane Center said.
It was likely to pass within 10 miles of Delaware's southeastern most corner and make a brief landfall along New Jersey's barrier islands before slamming into Long Island and New England, it said.
Delaware Gov. Jack Markell said at a briefing that 8 to 12 inches of rain were expected, with flooding, when the powerful storm arrived on Saturday night.
Hundreds of people took advantage of seven shelters opened up around Delaware to await Irene's arrival.
Roads in the area, including Route 1, the main evacuation router, were beginning to flood and gusts of wind were growing stronger.
Robert Hudson, a 64-year-old military retiree, said he came to a shelter at Milford High School out of concern for his step-daughter, granddaughter and wife.
"Things can be replaced, but life can't be," he said.
For Lelia Stone, 80, who has lived in Seaford, Delaware since 1967, the storm marked the first time she has ever been forced to flee her home.
She brought to the shelter "everything but the kitchen stove," including a Pomeranian named Sugar Bear, she said.
Nearby, Christina Schuyler, a 22-year-old stay-at-home mother from Allendale, passed the time playing cards. She said she was unimpressed by the storm and the dire predictions.
"It's just some wind," she said, adding that she was looking forward to Sunday when she could say "I told you so."
Delmarva Power reported that more than 2,000 of its customers in Delaware and Maryland had lost electric service as the first effects of Irene were being felt.
In the tourist area of Rehoboth Beach, about 15 people gathered in the Gray Hare Tavern, seemingly the only business open and just a few miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean.
Bartender Robin Yeager, 44, said business was steady all day, partly because there was no place else to go.
Jonathan Walker, 60, and his son Jonathan Walker II, 29, of Millsboro Delaware, were passing the afternoon shooting pool and discussing the impact from the storm on the local economy, which depends heavily on tourist income in the summer months.
The son, a bartender, said Irene could cause a local depression if restaurants and bars lose this weekend and next weekend's Labor Day due to storm damage.
Their biggest personal concern was trees knocking out electricity. The elder Walker had just bought a chainsaw for the clean up.
"A lot of local people can make a lot of money off a storm," his son said.
On the whole, they didn't seem particularly concerned.
"People are scared to death because of the hype. Everybody is scared of everything and it's just another natural phenomena. It sums up America: scared," said the elder Walker.
(Additional reporting by Molly O'Toole in Washington. Writing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Editing by Peter Bohan)