UPDATE: North Carolina counties tell thousands to leave as Hurricane Irene looms
Heeding a mandatory visitor evacuation, Shawn Wyn of Cleona, Pa., right, and his family pack up as they leave their rented beach house in Nags Head, N.C., Thursday, Aug. 25, 2011, in North Carolina's Outer Banks. A hurricane watch was issued early Thursday for much of the North Carolina coast. Officials along the East Coast of the United States are calculating what they need to do if Irene becomes the first major hurricane to strike the region in seven years. Woman left did not want to be identified. ((AP Photo/Charles Dharapak))
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 four coastal 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, Virginia and New Jersey made emergency declarations to free up resources, while the Navy began moving dozens of ships in Irene's path out to sea. 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 mph (185 kph). Forecasters predict it will then chug up the East Coast, 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 loaded 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."
Four counties along North Carolina's coast - Carteret, Currituck, Dare and Hyde - ordered tourists to leave. Dare and Hyde also told permanent residents to move inland. Carteret ordered evacuations for residents of a barrier island that includes the Atlantic Beach and Emerald Isle resorts.
"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 head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said residents in the hurricane's path should pay attention to local broadcasters for instructions from local officials. Among the most important tasks, he said, was for evacuees to figure 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," FEMA administrator Craig 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 27 ships to leave Norfolk and other Virginia ports, saying they can better weather the storm at sea. The vessels include an aircraft carrier, destroyers and submarines.
The hurricane is also forcing cruise lines to alter the routes of their ships and ports to consider doing the same for cargo ships that move up the busy Atlantic corridor.
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. He said he would make a decision by late Friday on whether to evacuate neighborhoods along the water in several boroughs.
New York 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.
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.
On 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). An afternoon hurricane center advisory said some strengthening was expected, but forecasters didn't expect the storm to reach Category 4 strength.
While the storm's path isn't definite, officials are taking nothing for granted.