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 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.