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.
Hours after a hurricane watch was issued for much of the state's coast, emergency officials expanded evacuation orders to include hundreds of thousands of tourists and locals in three counties. 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.
The governors of North Carolina and Virginia also made emergency declarations to free up storm recovery resources, while the Navy began moving dozens of ships out to sea from ports in Irene's path. 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.
The storm is expected to come ashore Saturday in North Carolina with winds of around 115
t, dumping rain from Virginia to New York City before a much-weakened form trudges through New England.
As the sun rose over North Carolina's 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. Tourists and locals in Hyde County were also told to move inland, as were visitors in Currituck County.
"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, said residents should pay attention to local broadcasters to see if an evacuation order is made. 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 they can better weather the storm at sea.
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.