Hurricane Irene was poised to cause major destruction along the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast over the weekend, and thousands of people Thursday were leaving North Carolina's exposed coast in preparation for the storm's likely first U.S. strike.
"This is everything a hurricane can be, and it's on one of those worst-case tracks for the East Coast," said Dennis Feltgen, a spokesman for the National Hurricane Center.
"Usually, hurricanes that get up into the higher latitudes are fast-moving," he said. "This one isn't — which means it will be a powerful, slow-moving storm that could be doing a lot of damage."
Irene caused widespread damage in the Bahamas early Thursday as it churned north across the Caribbean and headed toward the U.S.
The Category 3 hurricane was expected to hit North Carolina's Outer Banks on Saturday afternoon with winds around 115 mph. Forecasters predict it will chug up the Eastern Seaboard, dumping rain from Washington, D.C., to New York City to before weakening to a tropical storm by the time it reaches Boston.
The governors of North Carolina, Virginia and New Jersey have all declared states of emergency.
"Depending on the storm's final track, there is the potential for flooding from both rainfall and storm surge in the eastern part of the state," Virginia's Gov. Bob McDonnell said.
NOAA's Hydrometeorological Prediction Center said Thursday that Irene "potentially could be extremely dangerous, with massive disruptions to society and commerce along its entire track."
The storm is likely to force hundreds of flights to be canceled through this weekend and create delays that could ripple across the country. On Thursday, airlines were offering passengers the option of free rebooking for trips to many East Coast cities.
President Obama was keeping tabs on preparations for Hurricane Irene as his family rounds out their vacation on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts.
North Carolina was under a hurricane watch, and emergency officials expanded evacuation orders to include more than 200,000 tourists and locals in three coastal counties — including an estimated 150,000 tourists in coastal Dare County. 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.
Dare County's Ocracoke Island was facing special challenges because it is accessible to the mainland only by boat. Visitors to the island have already been ordered off.
Jessica Felice, who manages the Crews Inn on Ocracoke, said everyone packed up and left the bed and breakfast on Wednesday. She closed up shop and went to stay with her parents on nearby Hatteras Island.
"Everyone is pulling their boats out of the water, cleaning their yards, securing everything and getting supplies," Felice said.
Over at the Castle at Silver Lake, manager Ronnie Ciccione said the B&B's guests had gone and that employees were battening the hatches at the historic Ocracoke structure as they were "mulling it over" about where to go to ride out the storm.
"Everyone has stayed here in previous years," Ciccione said. He planned to wait until Friday morning to decide whether to stay with a friend on the island, at his own home or at the Castle, which he said sits on high ground.
"It wouldn't behoove anyone to stay in these circumstances," said Sharon Sullivan, Dare County's emergency management spokeswoman. "Businesses are boarding up. Nobody can guarantee their safety."
The Navy ordered the Second Fleet in southeastern Virginia, including at Norfolk Naval Station, to leave so ships would be safe from Irene. Thursday's order applied to 64 ships in the area, some of which were already at sea.
The Navy moves its ships when approaching storms can produce winds of 50 knots and a 5- to 7-foot storm surge. Military officials said ships at sea can better weather storms and that moving them also will help prevent damage to piers.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg urged residents in low-lying areas Thursday to figure out where they would go in case of an evacuation order, saying he'd make a decision by late Friday on whether to issue an order to leave.
Craig Fugate, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, urged people to take several precautions as Irene bears down: Find out whether you live in an area that might need to evacuate, identify which local official might order an evacuation order, and monitor local broadcasters for any such announcement. Among the most important tasks, he said, was figuring out a safe place to go before hitting the road.
Even without hurricane-force winds, Irene could cause flooding and fell trees in northeastern states already drenched from a rainy August.
"You want to go into a hurricane threat with dry soil, low rivers, a half moon," New Jersey state climatologist David Robinson said. That's not the case in the Garden State, which has gotten twice as much rain this month as in a normal August. And high tide will be at 8 a.m. EDT on Sunday, right when Irene might be passing by.
While the storm's path isn't definite, officials are taking nothing for granted.
Maryland inspectors poured over bridges looking for cracks in the support piers and other structural features but found no damage, according to state transportation agency spokeswoman Teri Moss. In Virginia, with a southeastern corner that could be in Irene's way, coastal cities were reviewing their evacuation plans, said Laura Southard, spokeswoman for the state Department of Emergency Management.
Irene would be the first hurricane to hit the U.S. Mid-Atlantic since 2004, when Alex brushed North Carolina. The year before, Hurricane Isabel made landfall in the same area and barreled up along the Chesapeake Bay, causing major flooding in the area and billions of dollars in damage.
The last storm to hit New England at hurricane strength was Bob in 1991.
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