BUXTON, N.C. — Thousands were fleeing an exposed strip of coastal villages and beaches off the North Carolina coast, and dozens of Navy ships were ordered to leave their port to the north Thursday as Irene approached, threatening to become the first major hurricane to hit the East Coast in seven years.
An evacuation order took effect for an estimated 150,000 tourists in coastal Dare County hours after forecasters issued a hurricane watch for much of the state's coast. Meanwhile, emergency officials all the way to New England were scrambling to get ready.
Irene could hit North Carolina's Outer Banks on Saturday afternoon with winds of 115 mph. 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.
Dare County officials were considering making thousands of year-round residents leave, too.
"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 Navy ordered the Second Fleet in southeastern Virginia, including at Norfolk Naval Station, to leave so ships would be safe from the approaching hurricane. Thursday's order applied to 64 ships in the area, some of which were already at sea.
The Navy, which moves it ships when storms can produce winds of 50 knots and a five- to seven-foot storm surge, said ships at sea can better weather storms. The move will also help protect piers from being damaged.
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.
"You have to recognize that you're living here on an island, and island living represents certain risks," said Edward Mangano, county executive in Long Island's Nassau County, N.Y., where school buses were being moved to higher ground in case they're needed to evacuate residents to storm shelters. "And those risks appear now, at least, to be tracking toward us."
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 an evacuation 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' "The Early Show."
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 reaching at least 131 mph.
While the storm's path isn't definite, officials are taking nothing for granted.
In Maryland, bridge inspections 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, 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 because 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's department of transportation ranks it a 2 on its safety meter, with 100 being the 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 mph 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 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 out over the Atlantic on Thursday, with the National Hurricane Center saying it would likely become a tropical storm later in the day.