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.
Irene’s maximum sustained winds increased to near 115 mph (185 kph) with additional strengthening forecast, the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said.
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.
The first ferry to leave Ocracoke Island arrived just before 5:30 a.m. in nearby Hatteras with around a dozen cars on board.
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 and a tourist population that swells into the thousands when vacationers rent rooms and cottages. Tourists were told to evacuate Wednesday. Island residents were told to get out on Thursday.
It wasn’t clear how many people on the first arriving ferry Wednesday morning were tourists, but the first two cars to drive off it had New York and New Jersey plates.
Getting off the next ferry about an hour later was a family that included newlywed Jennifer Baharek, 23, of Torrington, Conn. She and her husband, Andrew, were married Monday and planned to spend their honeymoon on the island.
“We just got to spend one day on the beach and then we went to bed early to get up for the evacuation,” she said.
State workers questioned people who tried taking the ferry to the island turned a few cars around. In addition to the ferry line to Hatteras, there were two other ferry lines that went to and from the island.
Federal officials have warned Irene could cause flooding, power outages or worse all along the East Coast 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.
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 Tuesday’s earthquake that rattled the East Coast.
“It’s a reminder that we don’t always get to pick the next disaster,” Fugate said.
In North Carolina, the state-run ferry service off Ocracoke Island would be free during the evacuation, but no reservations were allowed. Boats can carry no more than 50 vehicles at a time.
The island is part of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, a roughly 200-mile stretch of fragile barrier islands off the state’s coast. Pristine beaches and wild mustangs attract thousands of tourists each year. Aside from Ocracoke, the other islands are accessible by bridges to the mainland and ferries. The limited access can make the evacuation particularly tense.
All the barrier islands have the geographic weakness of jutting out into the Atlantic like the side-view mirror of a car, a location that’s frequently been in the path of destructive storms over the decades.