BUXTON, N.C. (AP) — Thousands were fleeing an exposed strip of coastal villages and beaches off North Carolina on Thursday as Irene approached, threatening to become the most powerful hurricane to hit the East Coast in seven years.
Hours after a hurricane watch was issued for much of the state's coast, emergency officials expanded evacuation orders to include hundreds of thousands of tourists and locals in four coastal counties. The areas include the barrier island chain known as the Outer Banks, which is expected to take the brunt of Irene's first hit over the weekend.
The governors of North Carolina, Virginia and New Jersey made emergency declarations to free up resources, while the Navy began moving dozens of ships in Irene's path out to sea. And emergency officials all the way to New England were urging residents in low-lying areas to gather supplies and learn the way to a safe location.
The storm is expected to come ashore Saturday in North Carolina with winds of around 115 mph (185 kph). Forecasters predict it will then chug up the East Coast, dumping rain from Virginia to New York City before a much-weakened form trudges through New England.
As the sun rose over North Carolina's barrier islands, tourists loaded suitcases in their cars, while locals stocked up on food, water and gas. Traffic was moving briskly Thursday morning on the two-lane highway that cuts through many of the coastal communities, but many feared that would change.
"It's going to be a mess," said 66-year-old Buxton resident Leon Reasor as he stood inside a local bait shop. "Anyone who tells you they're not worried is a liar."
Four counties along North Carolina's coast — Carteret, Currituck, Dare and Hyde — ordered tourists to leave. Dare and Hyde also told permanent residents to move inland. Carteret ordered evacuations for residents of a barrier island that includes the Atlantic Beach and Emerald Isle resorts.
"It wouldn't behoove anyone to stay in these circumstances," Dare County emergency management spokeswoman Sharon Sullivan said. "Businesses are boarding up. Nobody can guarantee their safety."
The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said residents in the hurricane's path should pay attention to local broadcasters for instructions from local officials. Among the most important tasks, he said, was for evacuees to figure out a safe place to go before hitting the road.
"When you evacuate, you want to know where you're going and make sure you have somewhere to go, not just get on the road with everybody else and hope you find some place," FEMA administrator Craig Fugate said Thursday on CBS's "The Early Show."
All along the East Coast, officials were calculating what they needed to do as Irene continued its march across the Caribbean toward the U.S. The Navy ordered 27 ships to leave Norfolk and other Virginia ports, saying they can better weather the storm at sea. The vessels include an aircraft carrier, destroyers and submarines.
The hurricane is also forcing cruise lines to alter the routes of their ships and ports to consider doing the same for cargo ships that move up the busy Atlantic corridor.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg urged residents living in low-lying areas on Thursday to line up a place to stay on high ground ahead of possible evacuations. He said he would make a decision by late Friday on whether to evacuate neighborhoods along the water in several boroughs.
Even without hurricane-force winds, northeastern states already drenched from a rainy August could see flooding and fallen trees from Irene.
"You want to go into a hurricane threat with dry soil, low rivers, a half moon," New Jersey state climatologist David Robinson said.
That is not the case. The Garden State has gotten twice as much rain this month as in a normal August, and high tide happens at 8 a.m. EDT on Sunday, when Irene might be passing by.
On Thursday, the storm was pounding the Bahamas with widespread damage reported on at least two southern islands. It was a powerful Category 3 hurricane with winds at 115 mph (185 kph). An afternoon hurricane center advisory said some strengthening was expected, but forecasters didn't expect the storm to reach Category 4 strength.
The last Category 3 hurricane to hit the East Coast was Jeanne in 2004.
While the storm's path isn't definite, officials are taking nothing for granted.
In Maryland, inspections of bridges looking for cracks in the support piers and other structural features found no damage, according to state transportation agency spokeswoman Teri Moss. In Virginia, with a southeastern corner that could be in Irene's way, cities along the coast are reviewing their evacuation plans, said Laura Southard, spokeswoman for the state Department of Emergency Management.
Farther north, included marinas in Connecticut pulled in their boats and Rhode Island emergency management officials handed out sandbags.
Roads and bridges in Massachusetts are likely to bear the weather in good condition, said Peter Judge, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency. But the agency is planning for flooding and is keeping an eye on the 3,000 public and private dams throughout the state.
North Carolina's Outer Banks have a long history of hurricanes, and building codes and emergency plans reflect that. Structures in the region are designed to withstand up to 110 mph sustained winds and gusts of up to 130 mph for three minutes. Evacuation routes are meticulously planned, down to the order in which counties hit the road.
Some of the region's most popular destinations rely on the ailing Bonner Bridge, which was built in 1963 and intended to last 30 years, to connect Hatteras Island to the northern Outer Banks. There's no other way to reach Hatteras except by boat.
The bridge handles about 2 million cars a year and the state DOT ranks it a 2 on its safety meter, with 100 being the highest, or most safe, designation.
"We're going to shift people and resources around to do what we need to do and keep the roads open," said North Carolina Department of Transportation spokeswoman Nicole Meister. The 2.7-mile bridge won't stay open if it's deemed unsafe — which happened during Hurricane Earl last year — but the state has an emergency ferry terminal ready in that case to get people off the island, Meister said.
Tourists in Buxton were sad to cut their vacations short, but said they understood the urgency of the situation.
New Jersey accountant John Robeson brought his wife and children — ages 8 and 4 — down for a week, but their vacation was cut short after three days.
"I'm disappointed," he said as he loaded his car. "You wait all year. Talk about it. Make plans for your vacation. And now this. It's a bad break."
His wife, Marlene, agreed. "I'm worried about traffic. I don't want to be stuck on the highway when the storm hits," she said.
Associated Press writers Tom Breen and Michael Biesecker in Raleigh, N.C.; Harry R. Weber in Miami; Larry O'Dell in Richmond, Va.; Geoff Mulvihill in Trenton, N.J.; Brian Witte in Baltimore, Md.; Brock Vergakis in Norfolk, Va.; Johanna Kaiser in Boston; and Meghan Barr and Samantha Gross in New York contributed to this report.