Tourists began evacuating from a tiny barrier island off North Carolina on Wednesday as Hurricane Irene strengthened to a major Category 3 storm over the Bahamas with the East Coast in its sights.
So far, things were going smoothly, said Tommy Hutcherson, owner of the Ocracoke Variety Store on Ocracoke Island. Cars had lined up at gas pumps to top off before leaving ahead of Irene, which had winds near 120 mph (193 kph) as of Wednesday afternoon. Irene is expected to get stronger over warm ocean waters and could become a Category 4 storm with winds of at least 131 mph (211 kph) by Thursday.
The evacuation was a test of whether people in the crosshairs of the first major hurricane along the East Coast in years would heed orders to get out of the way. As Irene churned in the Caribbean, tourists scurried from hotels in the Bahamian capital of Nassau to catch flights off the island before the airport's expected afternoon closure. Officials as far north as Rhode Island and Massachusetts in the U.S. also were getting ready for Irene.
The first ferry to leave Ocracoke Island in North Carolina arrived just before 5:30 a.m. in nearby Hatteras with around a dozen cars on board.
The 16-mile-long barrier island is accessible only by boats that can carry no more than 50 cars at a time. It 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.
Getting off the next ferry about an hour later was a family that 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.
State workers questioned people who tried taking the ferry to the island and turned a few cars around. In addition to the ferry line to Hatteras, there were two other ferry lines that went to and from the island.
Federal officials have warned 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.
As of 2 p.m. EDT Wednesday, Irene was centered about 250 miles (402 kilometers) southeast of Nassau in the Bahamas and was moving northwest near 12 mph (19 kph).
Speaking Wednesday on ABC's "Good Morning America," Craig Fugate, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said people as far north as New England should be ready for the storm. When asked about concerns preparing the Northeast for a hurricane, which is uncommon in that part of the country, Fugate cited Tuesday's earthquake that rattled the East Coast.
"It's a reminder that we don't always get to pick the next disaster," Fugate said. During a conference call Wednesday, he also urged people to listen to local officials, saying that many times "evacuation orders are given when the skies are blue."
Ocracoke 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. Officials in counties covering the rest of the Outer Banks were to decide Wednesday evening whether to evacuate other areas.
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. In 1999, Hurricane Floyd made landfall as a Category 2 storm and caused a storm surge that wiped out scores of houses and other properties on the Outer Banks.
Irene had already wrought destruction across the Caribbean, giving a glimpse of what the storm might bring to the Eastern Seaboard. In Puerto Rico, tens of thousands were without power, and one woman died after trying to cross a swollen river in her car. At least hundreds were displaced by flooding in the Dominican Republic, forced to take refuge in schools and churches. In Cuba, the storm sent waves crashing over a seawall in Baracoa, causing ankle-deep flooding in parts and damaging some sidewalks.
Hurricane conditions were already present in the southeastern Bahamas, forecasters said. The capital of Nassau buzzed with preparations Wednesday, as the government and some resorts set up emergency shelters. Many visitors scrambled to get off the island, waiting in long lines to catch planes before the airport closed.
"I've been through one hurricane and I don't want to see another," said Susan Hooper of Paris, Illinois, who was cutting short a trip with her husband, Marvin, to celebrate their 23rd wedding anniversary. "My main concern is what if something happened to the airport. How would I get home?"
Forecasters warned it could get worse: The storm could strengthen in the next day or so. Irene could crawl up the coast Sunday toward the Northeast region, where residents aren't accustomed to such storms.
It's been more than seven years since a major hurricane, considered a Category 3 with winds of at least 111 mph (179 kph), hit the East Coast. Hurricane Jeanne came ashore on Florida's east coast in 2004.
People were keeping an eye on the storm farther north. At the Breakers Resort Inn in Virginia Beach, Va., manager Jimmy Capps said some customers have canceled, but he's urging most to wait until Thursday, when the storm's path will be more certain than it is now. He said the 56-room inn is still about 80 percent booked for the weekend.
In Massachusetts, country music star Kenny Chesney bumped a concert ahead two days so it would be held ahead of Irene, and state officials were making sure communications systems were working and sandbags were stocked. In Rhode Island, officials stockpiled sandbags and cleared storm drains to prepare for possible flooding.
North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue urged coastal residents to be prepared and fill up their gas tanks, collect their prescription drugs and have cash in case the region is without power or other basics. Hurricane kits also should include water, canned food and other supplies.
Still, Perdue tried not to discourage vacationers from visiting North Carolina's coast, saying at this point the state's southern beaches would avoid the brunt of the storm and predicted Irene would pass the state by Sunday morning — leaving intact the week leading up to the Labor Day holiday.
Perdue defended comments she made Tuesday asking the media not to scare away tourists and urging vacationers to keep visiting North Carolina. She said that no one wants to put visitors in harm's way and that the state would be quick to evacuate more people if the storm track alters.
"You will never endanger your tourists, but you also don't want to overinflate the sense of urgency about the storm. And so let's just hang on."
Cheryl Tuverson of Drexel Hill, Pa., was staying on Hatteras Island with a large group, including her two children, and had no plans to hang on. She recalled staying through a storm during a previous visit to the area and said she wouldn't do it again.
"This time, we'll leave," she said. "We're supposed to leave Saturday, but we'll leave Friday."