By MITCH WEISS and MARTHA WAGGONER, Associated Press
BUXTON, N.C. -- Thousands were fleeing an exposed strip of coastal villages and beaches off North Carolina on Thursday as Irene approached, threatening to become the first major hurricane to hit the East Coast in seven years.
About 180,000 tourists and residents in coastal Dare County have been told to leave, and forecasters issued a hurricane watch for much of the state's coast. To the north in Virginia, dozens of Navy ships began leaving their port to ride out the storm at 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.
Irene could hit North Carolina's Outer Banks on Saturday afternoon with winds around 115 mph (185 kph). It's predicted to chug up the East Coast, dumping rain from Virginia to New York City before a much-weakened form reaches land in Connecticut.
As the sun rose over the barrier islands, tourists packed 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."
An evacuation order for an estimated 150,000 visitors took effect Thursday in Dare County, while its 35,000 permanent residents were told to begin leaving the next day.
"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."
Craig Fugate, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, urged people to find out if they are in an area that could need to evacuate, figure out which local official would give the order and pay attention to local broadcasters for that information. Among the most important tasks, he said, was figuring 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," 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 64 ships to leave Norfolk and other Virginia ports, saying ships at sea can better weather storms.
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 this weekend. 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.
Early 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). Forecasters said the winds will ramp up quickly over the next day and Irene was expected to blow into a monstrous Category 4 with winds at least 131 mph (210 mph).
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.
North Carolina's Outer Banks, which look the likeliest to get a serious hit from Irene, 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.
Ocracoke Island, a tiny Outer Banks community, has already ordered visitors off, but it has special challenges since it's only accessible to the mainland by boat.
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.
Farther north, precautions so far were mainly wait-and-see as officials watched for developments in the forecast.
New York City officials had begun preparations to evacuate residents from low-lying areas of the city if necessary. The city's subway stations and tunnels would likely be flooded in places, and officials plan to shut the system down ahead of time to reduce damage to the infrastructure.
"The sense is that we're going to be facing a strong tropical storm" with winds of 40 to 60 mph, said Office of Emergency Management Commissioner Joseph F. Bruno.
But Bruno added that the city's agencies were preparing for a Category 1 hurricane with winds surpassing 74 mph and waters surging dangerously in low-lying areas. With five hospitals and nursing homes in the area, officials were readying to possibly evacuate the most frail and needy.
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.
Meanwhile, a new tropical depression formed far out over the Atlantic on Thursday, with the National Hurricane Center saying it would likely become a tropical storm later in the day.
Associated Press writers Tom Breen and Michael Biesecker in Raleigh, N.C.; 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.