Tourists started evacuating the North Carolina border island of Ocracoke today, as Hurricane Irene strengthened to a Category 3 storm and headed toward the East Coast. A local tells the AP evacuations are going smoothly so far. Year-round residents were ordered to begin evacuating tomorrow. Irene’s winds neared 120mph this afternoon, and the hurricane is expected to get stronger tomorrow, possibly reaching Category 4 with winds of 131mph or more. US cities as far north as Rhode Island and Massachusetts are preparing for the storm; officials have warned of possible flooding, power outages, and worse as far north as Maine.
In the Bahamas, tourists were catching flights out of Nassau before an expected afternoon airport closure. A rough night is expected in the Bahamas, where some islands have reported uprooted trees, power outages, and downed power lines, the AP notes. Reuters adds that Irene is currently hitting the southeastern Bahamas hard. The storm has already killed one woman in Puerto Rico, where tens of thousands are without power. Irene could make landfall in the US over the weekend, anywhere from North Carolina to New York, leaving officials in tourist-heavy areas with the tough decision of whether or not to urge tourists out. Despite the fact that hurricanes are uncommon in the Northeast, FEMA head Craig Fugate brought up yesterday’s Virginia earthquake as an example of why the entire East Coast must be prepared. (Read more hurricane stories.)