As of early Friday morning, Hurricane Irene was still lumbering toward North Carolina and setting its sights on the East Coast in an unusually broad path that could affect 55 million people.
Hurricane watches were posted for North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York and New England, putting residents on notice to prepare for the worst and in some cases begin evacuations.
Officials announced mandatory evacuations all along the North Carolina coast, and tourists seemed especially anxious to leave. Despite strong riptides, some people were still swimming in the ocean; lifeguards near Wrightsville Beach, near Wilmington, N.C., have rescued eight people so far.
Wrightsville Beach was shrouded in a heavy, gray air, with some rain. People kept up a slow, steady exodus overnight, one that will surely grow as they try to beat the storm. As of 5 a.m., the storm was 420 miles south southwest of Cape Hatteras and was expected to hit near Wilmington with full force by nightfall.
The hurricane remained on track to hit New York City late Saturday through Sunday, and officials urged people to stay away from coastal areas and to prepare for a possible shutdown of the city’s massive subway system.
Evacuations were already beginning Friday morning in spots across New York. Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered five hospitals as well as homes for the aged and nursing homes in the low-lying areas of the city to evacuate their patients to higher ground by 8 p.m. Friday. City shelters are to open at 4 p.m. on Friday.
The mayor is expected to determine by 8 a.m. in Saturday whether to order a broader public evacuation of the city. There were mandatory evacuations for all nonresidents for parts of the Jersey shore.
Hurricane Irene was moving at a relatively slow 14 miles an hour, half the speed of typical hurricanes along the coast, but carrying the potential for much more destruction. The hurricane’s winds weakened slightly overnight, to 110 miles per hour from 115 miles per hour, and officials downgraded the storm to a Category 3 but said no one should be lulled into complacency.
The hurricane’s size and slow pace could intensify flooding in the Middle Atlantic states and in the Northeast, where the ground is already saturated in places from heavy rains this summer.
Weather experts are exceedingly concerned about Hurricane Irene because it is set to lash parts of the United States that are less accustomed to hurricanes, like the Jersey Shore and Long Island.
A storm surge of 6 to 11 feet is expected along the coast in North Carolina, where evacuations have been under way for days and where more people were packing up and leaving before dawn on Friday. John Ratcliffe-Lee and his girlfriend, Kate, said they pulled out of the Four Seasons resort here at 5:20 a.m. Friday, having decided to leave the barrier island before dawn because they hoped traffic would be minimal.
They might have left a day earlier, but Mr. Ratcliffe-Lee turned 29 that day, and “Who wants to evacuate on their birthday?” he said by telephone. He said traffic was moving at normal speeds.
John H. Woolard, who is 79 years old, spent Thursday dragging furniture to the inside of his home, also 79, which sits on stilts overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in Kill Devil Hills. “I have never left,” he said proudly, showing off a photograph he took of a storm in 1962. “But I think I’m going to leave this time.”
“This one,” he said, referring to Hurricane Irene, “is dead on us.”
His assessment on Thursday remained true on Friday. The hurricane center has placed veritable bull’s-eyes on Wilmington, N.C.; Virginia Beach;
Atlantic City; and New York City, jolting beachgoers and old-timers alike.
The new hurricane watch on Friday morning extended from north of Sandy Hook, N.J., to the northern edge of Massachusetts, including Long Island, Block Island, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, where President Obama is preparing to decamp from his vacation on Saturday. Such a watch is typically issued 48 hours in advance of the first strong winds associated with a storm.
In Washington, the storm forced organizers to postpone indefinitely the dedication of the new memorial to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which was scheduled for Sunday.
W. Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said the hurricane was likely to drop as much as 10 inches of rain in some areas. “This will not just be a coastal storm,” he said. “We can see impacts well inland.”
Amtrak announced that it was canceling train service for Friday, Saturday and Sunday south of Washington because of the storm. Service in the Northeast Corridor is not affected.
Forecasters said the storm presented some unusual problems. For one thing, it is uncommonly large: hurricane-force winds of at least 74 m.p.h. extended 90 miles from its center on Friday, and winds of at least 40 m.p.h. reached up to 290 miles out.
A tropical storm warning was also in effect in South Carolina, and conditions along the coast there are expected to deteriorate as the hurricane passes on Friday. It spared Florida for the most part as it lashed the Bahamas, but the authorities in Palm Beach County said at least eight people were injured when they were hit by a hurricane-spawned wave on a Boynton Beach Inlet jetty, The Associated Press reported.
Emergencies were declared in five states, and evacuations were expanded as far north as New Jersey. “The latest tracking tells us that this is going to become more serious than less,” Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey said at a news conference.
The New Jersey evacuations were voluntary, for the time being. But on the Outer Banks, they were mandatory, and tourists were told to leave the barrier islands as soon as possible.