Wayne Parry, Associated Press
NAGS HEAD, N.C. — Hurricane Irene's main thrust was still a day away from North Carolina but heightened waves began hitting the state's Outer Banks early Friday as the storm continued trudging toward the East Coast.
Swells from Irene and 6 to 9-foot waves were showing up and winds were expected to begin picking up later in the day, said Hal Austin, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
Meanwhile, the hurricane warning area was expanded and now covered a large chunk of the East Coast from North Carolina to Sandy Hook, N.J., which is south of New York City. A hurricane watch extended even farther north and included Long Island, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, Mass.
For hundreds of miles, as many as 65 million people along the densely populated East Coast warily waited Friday for a dangerous hurricane that has the potential to inflict billions of dollars in damages anywhere within that urban sprawl that arcs from Washington and Baltimore through Philadelphia, New York, Boston and beyond.
Irene weakened slightly Friday, dropping down to a Category 2 storm with maximum sustained winds near 110 mph (175 kph). But some re-strengthening was possible and the storm was expected to be near the threshold between a Category 2 and 3 storm as it reached North Carolina's coast, the National Hurricane Center said.
In North Carolina, traffic was steady Friday as people left the Outer Banks. Tourists were ordered to leave the barrier islands Thursday and many residents were following as ordered Friday.
At a gas station in Nags Head, Pete Reynolds said he wanted to make sure he had enough fuel for the long trip. The retired 68-year-old teacher spent part of Thursday getting his house ready for the hurricane. Now, he and his wife, Susan, were heading to New Jersey area to stay with their son's family.
"We felt like we would be OK and we could ride out the storm," said Reynolds, who lives in Nags Head. "But when they announced mandatory evacuations, I knew it was serious."
Speaking Friday on CBS' "The Early Show," North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue said the state has Highway Patrol Troopers, the Red Cross and National Guardsmen in place to deal with the storm's aftermath. But she warned coastal residents not to risk waiting out the storm and hoping for help after it passed.
"You can't count on that. Folks need to decide that they need to get out now," she said.
North Carolina was just first in line along the Eastern Seaboard — home to some of the nation's most heavily populated areas and some of its priciest real estate. Besides major cities, sprawling suburban bedroom communities, ports, airports, highway networks, cropland and mile after mile of built-up beachfront neighborhoods are in harm's way.
"One of my greatest nightmares was having a major hurricane go up the whole Northeast coast," Max Mayfield, the National Hurricane Center's retired director, told The Associated Press on Thursday as the storm lurched toward the U.S. "This is going to be a real challenge ... There's going to be millions of people affected."
The hurricane would be the strongest to strike the East Coast in seven years, and people were already getting out of the way. After dousing the Bahamas, it was again moving over warm Atlantic waters that will energize it.
The center of the storm was still about 375 miles (600 kilometers) south-southwest of Cape Hatteras, N.C., and moving to the north at 14 mph (22 kph).
Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers were told Thursday to pack a bag and be prepared to move elsewhere. The nation's biggest city hasn't seen a hurricane in decades.
Farther south, tens of thousands packed up and left North Carolina beach towns and farmers pulled up their crops.
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