Hurricane Irene churned toward the Mid-Atlantic region Friday, its outer bands lashing the coasts of the Carolinas as it tracks north on a path that could affect 65 million people and cause billions of dollars in damage this weekend.
A swath of Eastern Seaboard was under a hurricane warning Friday, stretching from North Carolina up to Sandy Hook, N.J., and west into the Chesapeake Bay as far as Drum's Point. Hurricane watches, which mean the storm is imminent within 48 hours, extended farther north up to Massachusetts.
Thousands of people were evacuating coastal communities ahead of Irene, which had weakened slightly to a Category 2 storm with top sustained winds of 105 mph as of Friday afternoon. Little change in strength was expected by the time Irene reaches the North Carolina coast on Saturday, according to the National Hurricane Center.
The center of the storm was still about 330 miles south-southwest of Cape Hatteras, N.C., and moving to the north at 14 mph
President Obama, speaking from his vacation rental on Martha's Vineyard, Mass., urged Americans in Irene's path to heed instructions from state and local officials, especially if directed to evacuate.
"I cannot stress this highly enough, if you are in the projected path of this hurricane, you have to take precautions now," Obama said, adding that all indications point to Irene being a historic hurricane.
Rain from the storm's outer bands had already begun falling along the North and South Carolina coasts Friday. Swells and 6- to 9-foot waves were reported along the Outer Banks. Winds were expected to pick up later. Thousands of people had already lost power as the fringes of the storm began raking the shore.
The storm is likely to play havoc with airline schedules, and officials were encouraging passengers to consider changing flight plans or postponing trips as airlines cancel flights and move planes out of Irene's way.
The hurricane also could also push crude oil prices higher if it disrupts refineries in Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia, which produce nearly 8 percent of U.S. gasoline and diesel fuel.
Risks are many from Irene's wrath: surging seas, drenching rains, flash floods and high winds are all possibilities the Federal Emergency Management Agency director wasn't counting out.
"We're going to have damages. We just don't know how bad," said Craig Fugate, head of FEMA, which was making disaster plans for many states. "This is one of the largest populations that will be impacted by one storm at one time."
In New York and New Jersey, authorities stood ready to order evacuations of low-lying areas that may get waves known as storm surges. Michael Brennan of the National Hurricane Center in Miami said the geography of the coastline makes that area especially vulnerable.
"Near ... New York City is an area where a lot of water can be funneled up into a very small area if you get a big surge of easterly flow. So that's an area where the storm surge can be enhanced."
Irene is on track to hit just east of New York City, on Long Island, on Sunday but forecasters warn that high winds and rain on its outer edges could arrive sooner. Voluntary evacuation orders have been issued to certain areas of Long Island, which is home to 3 million people and has only a handful of bridges to the mainland.
"One of my greatest nightmares was having a major hurricane go up the whole Northeast coast," Max Mayfield, the National Hurricane Center's retired director, told The Associated Press. "This is going to be a real challenge ... There's going to be millions of people affected."
In North Carolina, traffic was steady Friday as people fled the Outer Banks and beach towns. A day earlier, tourists were ordered to leave the barrier islands, and many residents heeded authorities' admonitions to get out.
At a gas station in Nags Head, Pete Reynolds wanted to make sure he had enough fuel for the long trip. The retired teacher spent part of Thursday getting his house ready for the hurricane. He and his wife then headed to New Jersey to stay with their son's family.
"We felt like we would be OK, and we could ride out the storm," Reynolds said. "But when they announced mandatory evacuations, I knew it was serious."
Speaking Friday on CBS' The Early Show, North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue said state troopers, the Red Cross and the National Guard were in place to deal with the storm's aftermath. But she warned coastal residents not to risk waiting out the storm and hoping for help after it passed.
"You can't count on that. Folks need to decide that they need to get out now," she said.
North Carolina was just first in line along the Eastern Seaboard home to some of the nation's priciest real estate. Besides major cities, sprawling suburban bedroom communities, ports, airports, highway networks, cropland and mile after mile of built-up beachfront neighborhoods are in harm's way.
The hurricane would be the strongest to strike the East Coast in seven years,
The first U.S. injuries from Irene appeared to be in South Florida near West Palm Beach, where eight people were washed off a jetty Thursday by a large wave churned up by the storm.
In Washington, Irene dashed hopes of dedicating a 30-foot sculpture to the late Martin Luther King Jr. on Sunday on the National Mall. While a direct strike on the nation's capital appeared slim, organizers said the forecasts of wind and heavy rain made it too dangerous to summon a throng they expected to number up to 250,000.
Across the Northeast, Irene threatened to flood many miles of land that are already saturated from heavy rain.
Parts of Rhode Island are still recovering from devastating 2010 spring floods. Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy warned there could be prolonged power outages if Irene dumps up to a foot of additional rain.
The urban population explosion in recent decades also worries New Jersey officials. Gov. Chris Christie encouraged anyone on that state's heavily built-up shoreline to begin preparations to leave. One of the popular casinos in Atlantic City had already closed Friday, and several others planned to shut down later in the day.
The beach community of Ocean City, Md., was taking no chances, ordering thousands of people to leave.
"This is not a time to get out the camera and sit on the beach and take pictures of the waves," said Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley.
With reporting from Phil Latzman in Miami and Charles Lane in Long Island, N.Y. Material from The Associated Press was used in this story.
Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.