NAGS HEAD, N.C. — Hurricane Irene began lashing the East Coast with rain Friday ahead of a weekend of violent weather that was almost certain to heap punishment on a vast stretch of shoreline from the Carolinas to Massachusetts.
For hundreds of miles, people in the storm's path headed inland, made last-minute preparations and monitored the hurricane's every subtle movement. Irene had the potential to cause billions of dollars in damage all along a densely populated arc that included Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Boston and beyond. At least 65 million people could be affected.
By late Friday morning, Irene remained a Category 2 storm with maximum sustained winds near 105 mph. Little change in strength was expected by the time Irene reaches the North Carolina coast Saturday, but forecasters at the National Hurricane Center warned it would be a large and dangerous storm nonetheless.
President Barack Obama said all indications point to the storm's being a historic hurricane.
"I cannot stress this highly enough. If you are in the projected path of this hurricane, you have to take precautions now," Obama said Friday from Martha's Vineyard. He was wrapping up his vacation a day early and now planned to leave Friday, before Irene is expected to pass the area around the capital, the White House said.
As Irene trudged northwest from the Bahamas, rain from its outer bands began falling along the North and South Carolina coasts. Swells and 6- to 9-foot waves were reported along the Outer Banks. Thousands had already lost power as the fringes of the storm began raking the shore.
Hurricane warnings remained in effect from North Carolina to New Jersey. Hurricane watches were in effect even farther north and included Long Island, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, Mass.
Friday morning, FEMA Director Craig Fugate and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano pleaded with people to heed warnings.
"People need to leave early, travel a safe distance and get somewhere safe," Fugate said. "All the preparation and planning will be in vain if people don't heed those evacuation orders."
In addition to widespread wind and water damage, Irene 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.
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, which she said could affect some 3.5 million people.
Irene could be the strongest hurricane to strike the East Coast in seven years. Irene already had pummeled the Caribbean, causing floods and power outages.
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.
In Washington, Irene dashed hopes of dedicating a 30-foot sculpture to Martin Luther King Jr. on Sunday on the National Mall. Although 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.
Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers were told Thursday to pack a bag and be prepared to move elsewhere. The nation's biggest city has not seen a hurricane in decades, and a hurricane warning hasn't been issued there since Hurricane Gloria hit in 1985 as a Category 2 storm, said Ashley Sears, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said public transportation in New York City would shut down around noon Saturday, and major bridges also could shut down if conditions become too windy.
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.
The urban population explosion in recent decades also worries New Jersey officials. Gov. Chris Christie encouraged anyone on that state's heavily developed shoreline to prepare 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," Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley said.