Tens of thousands of people evacuated low-lying areas from the Carolinas to Manhattan on Friday as massive Hurricane Irene moved up the East Coast.
President Barack Obama urged people to get out of the way of the storm, which had about 65 million people in its projected path. Obama and his family then left their Martha's Vineyard vacation to return to the White House.
"All indications point to this being a historic hurricane," said Obama, who conferred with key response team officials and had a teleconference with East Coast governors Friday.
The storm was on a track that experts have feared for decades as they watched the rapid expansion of coastal resorts and housing developments in the lowlands behind them. They have worried that a storm tracking along the shore line, renewing its force over the warm Atlantic and then ripping with each rotation like a circular saw into coastal areas, could produce unprecedented devastation.
"It looks like the track of Irene is going to have a major impact along the East Coast, starting in the Carolinas all the way up through Maine," said Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The storm began to bite into the Carolina coastline Friday and was expected to be over Cape Hatteras by 2 p.m. today.
By Sunday afternoon, if the current track holds, the storm will hit New York City, which was under a hurricane warning Friday evening. Plans were made to shut down the city's subway system today amid fears that it would be swamped.
The five main New York City-area airports were also scheduled to close at noon today for arriving passenger flights. Three of them, John F. Kennedy International Airport, LaGuardia International Airport and Newark Liberty International Airport, are among the busiest airports in the nation.
For the first time in memory, people were ordered to evacuate flood-prone coastal areas in Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and the financial district in Lower Manhattan.
By the time Irene arrives on Long Island, it will probably have top sustained winds in the 65-75 mph range, forecasters said.
If the storm stays on its current path, skyscraper windows could shatter, tree limbs would fall and debris would be tossed around. Streets in the southern tip of the city could be under a few feet of water, and police readied rescue boats but said they wouldn't go out if conditions were poor.
The unprecedented orders from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, which affect New Yorkers from the Bronx's most distant reaches down through Manhattan and out to the beaches of Brooklyn and Queens, dealt the congested metropolis a formidable logistical challenge that raised more questions than it resolved:
Where are all of those people in New York's flood-prone areas supposed to go? And, more pointedly, how are they going to get there — especially since many don't own a car?
Bridges and tunnels also could be closed as the storm approaches, clogging traffic in an already congested city.
Officials hoped most residents would stay with family and friends, and for the rest the city opened nearly 100 shelters with a capacity of 71,000 people.
Many people scoffed at the danger and vowed to ride it out at home.
"How can I get out of Coney Island? What am I going to do? Run with this walker?" said 82-year-old Abe Feinstein, who has lived since the early 1960s on the eighth floor of a building that overlooks the famed Coney Island boardwalk.
He said he watched Hurricane Gloria in 1985 from an apartment down the street.
"I think I have nothing to worry about," he said. "I've been through bad weather before. It's just not going to be a problem for us."
Officially, Irene was expected to make landfall today near Morehead City, on the southern end of the Outer Banks. But long before the eye crossed the coastline, the blustery winds and intermittent rains were already raking the coast. By Friday evening 50 mph winds were measured at Wrightsville Beach, N.C.
Some took to shelters.
Susan Kinchen, her daughter and 5-month-old granddaughter came to West Carteret High School with about 50 others. She said they didn't feel safe in their trailer, and the Louisiana native was reminded of how her old trailer lost its roof to Hurricane Katrina, almost six years ago to the day, on Aug. 29, 2005.
"We live in a trailer with her," said Kinchen, referring to the infant. "I'm not taking any chances."
Despite strong riptides, some people were still swimming in the ocean Friday, and lifeguards near Wrightsville Beach were kept busy with rescues.
"It's ominous and kind of humbling," said Norelle Helmer, standing near the ocean at Wrightsville Beach with her boyfriend, Dr. Jonathan Woods.
The sand pelted their faces as they watched the roiling of the dark green waves.
"This is the edge of something 600 miles wide," she said.
Information from the Washington Post, Associated Press and McClatchy Newspapers was used in this report.