Powerful Hurricane Irene battered the Bahamas on Wednesday on a track to the North Carolina coast that forecasters say could threaten the densely populated U.S. Northeast, including New York, starting on Sunday.
Irene, a major Category 3 storm with winds of 120 miles per hour (195 km per hour), pounded the southeast Bahamian islands with winds, rain and dangerous storm surge. Tourists fled the storm and major cruise lines canceled Bahamas stops.
The first hurricane of the storm-filled 2011 Atlantic season was expected to gain strength after it leaves the Bahamas on Thursday and race across open waters to clip North Carolina's jutting Outer Banks region on Saturday.
After that, forecasters see it hugging the U.S. eastern seaboard, swirling rains and winds across several hundred miles (km) as it churns northward toward New England.
"The exact center of the storm may actually stay pretty close to the coastline during the day on Saturday and then become a big threat for New England and perhaps Long Island ... on Sunday," U.S. National Hurricane Center Director Bill Read said.
"Be advised, it's going to be a very large circulation as it moves north of the Carolinas," he told a conference call.
Read said North Carolina could get tropical storm-force winds as early as Saturday morning
At 11 p.m. EDT (0300 GMT), Irene's center was about 150 miles east-southeast of Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas, and about 790 miles south of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.
If Irene makes a direct landfall in the continental United States, it will be the first hurricane to hit there since Ike pounded Texas in 2008. But forecasts showed it posing no threat to U.S. oil and gas installations in the Gulf of Mexico.
Irene's torrential rains were blamed for two deaths in the northeast Caribbean islands. A woman in Puerto Rico and a Haitian man in the Dominican Republic were swept away by floodwaters from overflowing rivers.
States from the Carolinas northward were on alert and visitors were ordered to evacuate many of North Carolina's Outer Banks barrier islands on Thursday.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered the state's Office of Emergency Management to prepare for possible impact from Irene. Insurers kept a nervous watch in case Irene threatened wealthy enclaves such as the Hamptons, an eastern Long Island playground for New York's rich.
Forecasters warned that even if the center of the hurricane stays offshore as it tracks up the mid-Atlantic coast, its wide, swirling bands could lash cities including Washington and New York with winds and rain, knock out power, trigger coastal storm surges and cause flooding.
"We're not paying attention just to the eye of the storm. We're looking at how wide it is, how large it is," Virginia Emergency Management Department spokeswoman Laura Southard said.
"STOCKING UP LIKE CRAZY"
Earlier on Wednesday, Irene strengthened over the Bahamas to a major Category 3 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson intensity scale, posing a high risk of injury and death. Forecasters said it could become a Category 4 by Thursday.
"Someone's roof is in my front yard," Harvey Roberts, an assistant administrator on the sparsely populated southeast Bahamas island of Mayaguana, told reporters on Wednesday, saying "tremendous winds" were lashing homes and buildings there.
Farther north on the scattered low-lying Bahamas, including Nassau, residents were frantically preparing.
"Everyone is either pulling up boats or putting up shutters. We are very well prepared," said Chuck Pinder, a 28-year-old fisherman in the community of Spanish Wells.
NHC chief Read predicted a "really tough time" for the Bahamas as Irene swept through Wednesday and Thursday.
Irene dealt a blow to the crucial tourism industry of the Bahamas. Cruise lines rearranged itineraries for more than a dozen ships in the area and tourism officials said the loss of those passenger visits would cost the Bahamas almost $2 million in tax revenues and other spending. Hotels also saw guests cancel or cut short their visits.
Energy firms planned to shut more than 28 million barrels of oil storage capacity in the Bahamas and refineries on the U.S. East Coast were preparing for the storm.
On the U.S. mainland, across the Carolinas coastline and in neighboring Virginia, residents stocked up with food, water and other supplies, including plywood to board up windows.
"There are people stocking up like crazy -- we're out of generators," said Tracy Hatfield at the Sam's Club members-only warehouse at Chesapeake Square.
(Additional reporting by Tom Brown, Jane Sutton and Manuel Rueda in Miami, Matthew Ward in Chesapeake, Virginia; Joan Gralla in New York, Lisa Lambert in Washington; Ned Barnett in Raleigh, N.C.; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Eric Beech) News.yahoo