HATTERAS, N.C. — Evacuations began on a tiny barrier island off North Carolina as Hurricane Irene strengthened to a major Category 3 storm over the Bahamas on Wednesday with the East Coast in its sights.
The hurricane was roaring its way Wednesday across the entire Bahamas archipelago, with winds near 115 mph knocking down trees and tearing up roofs and posing the most severe threat to the smallest and least populated islands, officials said.
Bill Read, director of the National Hurricane Center, said the storm will be close enough to Nassau to "have an impact" today and will affect Grand Bahama Island tonight.
The evacuation in North Carolina 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.
It won't be easy to get thousands of people off Ocracoke Island, which is accessible only by boat. The 16-mile-long barrier island is home to about 800 year-round residents. Tourists were told to evacuate Wednesday. Island residents were told to get out today.
Federal officials have warned Irene could cause flooding, power outages or worse all along the East Coast, from Florida 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.
Florida will feel the storm's effects, even if it is 200 miles away. On Tuesday evening, a tropical storm watch was issued for offshore waters from Jupiter Inlet to Miami-Dade County, where sustained winds could be at tropical storm strength of 34-plus mph.
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 the earthquake that rattled the East Coast.
"It's a reminder that we don't always get to pick the next disaster," Fugate said.
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.
The storm could strengthen in the next day or so as Irene crawls toward the Northeast.
Forecasters said that Saturday night the storm center is expected to pass off the Virginia capes, possibly at Category 2 strength.
Organizers of the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial dedication in Washington, D.C., said the ceremony could be moved from Sunday morning to afternoon if the weather is too bad.
Information from the Associated Press, Washington Post and South Florida Sun-Sentinel was used in this report.