Forecasters say Hurricane Irene that is taking aim at the East Coast could become a Category 4 monster by Thursday.
The National Hurricane Center late Wednesday said Irene approached the northwestern Bahamas as a Category 3 storm with winds at 120 mph.
The head of the National Emergency Management Agency in the Bahamas said he was getting what he called disturbing initial reports of damages from Irene in two southern islands Wednesday night.
Capt. Stephen Russell tells The Associated Press that at least two settlements have been devastated on Acklins and Crooked islands. Russells says an official there reports that 90 percent of the homes in the settlements have been severely damaged or destroyed. Several hundred people live on each island. No injuries have been reported.
The two islands were among the first to be hit Wednesday as the hurricane made its way up the island chain. Tourists fled the storm and major cruise lines canceled Bahamas stops.
Forecasters say the storm could strengthen quickly over the next day.
Hurricane and tropical storm watches will likely be required for parts of the coast of the Carolinas by early Thursday.
Winds in Category 4 storms are more than 131 mph.
Earlier Wednesday, officials in one North Carolina county urged tourists there to evacuate starting Thursday. Forecasters warn Irene could clip North Carolina's coast on Saturday and then threaten the densely populated Northeast, including New York, starting on Sunday.
Dare County said evacuations would begin Thursday at 8 a.m. Officials will meet again Thursday to determine if residents need to evacuate.
County spokeswoman Sharon Sullivan said as many as 150,000 tourists might be leaving the county that is home to some of the exposed Outer Banks.
Dare County beaches are the state's top vacation destination. Tourism represents about $834 million for businesses in the county, which has 8,000 rental homes and 3,000 hotel rooms, plus campground spots.
450 cruise passengers stranded in Hurricane Irene's wake
"It's in the warmest water in the most favorable environment for hurricanes so it could get stronger," said Bill Reid, director of the National Hurricane Center.
Forecasters see Irene striking North Carolina's Outer Banks region on Saturday evening and then taking a coast-hugging track up the mid-Atlantic and New England coastline.
Hurricane-force winds extend 60 miles from Irene's center so even a track off the coast could do damage on land. Hurricane-force winds extend 230 miles out.
"The exact center of the storm may stay close to the coastline Saturday and then become a threat to Long Island on Sunday," Reid said. "Be advised it will be a large circulation as it moves north of the Carolinas so the hurricane force winds, beach erosion, tidal surges will be in play as the storm progresses."
Florida will be spared for the most part, with Irene expected to track more than 200 miles off the coast as it moves north.
In North Carolina, the Dare County evacuation notice came after tourists were told to leave Ocracoke Island on Wednesday.
The 16-mile-long barrier island is home to about 800 year-round residents and a tourist population that swells into the thousands when vacationers rent rooms and cottages. Tourists were told to evacuate Wednesday. Island residents were told to get out on Thursday.
Evacuees included newlywed Jennifer Zaharek, 23, of Torrington, Conn. She and her husband, Andrew, were married Monday and planned to spend their honeymoon on the island.
"We just got to spend one day on the beach and then we went to bed early to get up for the evacuation," she said.
The island is part of North Carolina's Outer Banks, a roughly 200-mile stretch of fragile barrier islands off the state's coast. Pristine beaches and wild mustangs attract thousands of tourists each year. Aside from Ocracoke, the other islands are accessible by bridges to the mainland and ferries. The limited access can make the evacuation particularly tense.
All the barrier islands have the geographic weakness of jutting out into the Atlantic like the side-view mirror of a car, a location that's frequently been in the path of destructive storms over the decades.
Many remember 1999's Hurricane Floyd, which made landfall as a Category 2 and caused a storm surge that wiped out scores of houses and other properties on the Outer Banks.
On North Carolina's mainland, residents who have weathered years of storms took notice. People flocked to gas stations and stores to stock up on supplies like gasoline for generators, plywood for boarding up windows, flashlights, batteries and drinking water.
At Craft American Hardware at Wrightsville Beach, Don Korman said he had placed a big order set to arrive Wednesday: Batteries, lanterns, tarps and shutter supplies.
"People are watching the TV, but they usually come by a few days before," he said. "If it looks like it's coming like this, you can run out of stock really quick."
Korman, though, plans to be ready even for 11th-hour supply trips: the store is ready to plywood its windows and run off generator power until it becomes unsafe or unwise to keep the doors open.
"We won't close until the last minute," he said.
Most locals were heeding the warnings and getting ready for the storm, though few seemed panicked.
"Water, batteries, flashlights and now I'm going to get my grocery shopping done," said Sally Godwin, carrying two large jugs of fresh water out of Korman's store with her. "I live at the beach, and they always evacuate it the day before. I have to make sure all my little stuff's taken care of."
Federal officials have warned that Irene could cause flooding, power outages or worse all along the East Coast as far north as Maine, even if it stays offshore.
The projected path has gradually shifted to the east and Irene could make landfall anywhere from South Carolina to Massachusetts over the weekend.
It's been more seven years since a major hurricane, considered a Category 3 with winds of at least 111 mph, hit the East Coast. Hurricane Jeanne came ashore on Florida's east coast in 2004.
The last hurricane to hit the U.S. was Ike in 2008. The last Category 3 or higher to hit the Carolinas was Bonnie in 1998, but caused less damage than other memorable hurricanes: Hugo in 1989, Floyd in 1999 and Isabel in 2003.
Though a Category 2, Isabel cut a new inlet through Hatteras Island and killed 33 people.
Bahamas being battered
Irene had earlier barreled through the Turks and Caicos Islands late Tuesday as a Category 1 hurricane, blowing off some roofs and downing power lines, said Emily Malcolm, district commissioner for South Caicos island who is still assessing the damage.
"It's not as bad as I thought it would have been, so I am thankful for that," she said Wednesday by phone.
Cruise lines change itineraries as Irene pummels Bahamas
At 8 pm. ET Wednesday, Irene was centered about 185 miles southeast of Nassau, Bahamas.
In the Bahamas, lightly populated Cat Island was in particular danger because the storm was expected to pass over the entire length of the island.
Forecasters said New Providence, the largest and most populated Bahamas island, would see tropical-storm-force winds for more than 12 hours.
This was only the third time since 1866 that a hurricane has gone across the entire length of the island chain, and the country was bracing for extensive damage to buildings and infrastructure.
Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.
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