Interactive: Hurricane Tracker

Monitor Atlantic storm paths and weather conditions.

msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 8/25/2011 8:12:23 AM ET 2011-08-25T12:12:23

The National Hurricane Center issued a hurricane watch for the Outer Banks of North Carolina early Thursday as officials calculated what they need to do if Irene becomes the first major hurricane to strike the East Coast in seven years.

They're scrambling to inspect bridges, dusting off evacuation plans and getting sandbags ready for potential floods. And considering where and when to move people out of harm's way.

"You have to recognize that you're living here on an island, and island living represents certain risks," said Edward Mangano, county executive in Long Island's Nassau County, where school buses were being moved to higher ground in case they're needed to evacuate residents to storm shelters. "And those risks appear now, at least, to be tracking toward us."

Video: Fears rise as Hurricane Irene eyes East Coast (on this page)

North Carolina's hurricane watch extends from north of Surf City to the Virginia border. A hurricane watch means hurricane conditions are possible within 36 hours.

Irene could hit the Outer Banks on Saturday afternoon with winds around 115 mph. It's predicted to chug up the East Coast, dumping rain from Virginia to New York City before a much-weakened form reaches land in Connecticut. Finally, it should peter out in Maine by Monday afternoon.

A tropical storm watch has also been issued for much of South Carolina's coast.

Northeastern states already drenched
Even without hurricane-force winds, northeastern states already drenched from a rainy August could see flooding and fallen trees.

"You want to go into a hurricane threat with dry soil, low rivers, a half moon," New Jersey state climatologist David Robinson said.

Video: Evacuations begin as Irene approaches US (on this page)

That is not the case. The Garden State has experienced twice as much rain this month as in a normal August, and high tide happens at 8 a.m. EDT on Sunday, when Irene might be passing by.

Early Thursday, the storm was thrashing the Bahamas with widespread damage reported on at least two southern islands.

Irene was located about 105 miles east southeast of Nassau and about 760 miles south of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and was packing maximum sustained winds of 115 miles per hour, making it a powerful Category 3 hurricane.

The National Hurricane Center said Irene was presently moving northwest at 12 miles per hour.

"A hurricane warning is in effect for the southeastern, central and northwestern Bahamas," the NHC said.

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Forecasters said the winds will ramp up quickly over the next day and Irene was expected to blow into a monstrous Category 4 with winds at least 131 mph.

Preparing for the worst
While the storm's path isn't definite, officials are taking nothing for granted.

In Maryland, inspections of bridges looking for cracks in the support piers and other structural features found no damage, according to state transportation agency spokeswoman Teri Moss. In Virginia, with a southeastern corner that could be in Irene's way, cities along the coast are reviewing their evacuation plans, said Laura Southard, spokeswoman for the state Department of Emergency Management.

Top hurricane prep tip: Get gas

"If there is an evacuation, people don't have to go to Richmond or Williamsburg," she said. "They just have to get to higher ground. There are multiple routes out. Cities and localities work hard year-round on their plans."

North Carolina's Outer Banks, which look the likeliest to get a serious hit from Irene, have a long history of hurricanes, and building codes and emergency plans reflect that. Structures in the region are designed to withstand up to 110 mph sustained winds and gusts of up to 130 mph for three minutes. Evacuation routes are meticulously planned, down to the order in which counties hit the road.

Image: Vehicles leave a ferry in Hatteras, N.C.
Gerry Broome  /  AP
A ferry from from Ocracoke Island delivers passengers in Hatteras, N.C., on Wednesday.

Ocracoke Island, a tiny Outer Banks community, has already ordered visitors off, but it has special challenges since it's only accessible to the mainland by boat. Dare County ordered evacuations to start Thursday and Currituck County was weighing its decision.

Some of the region's most popular destinations rely on the ailing Bonner Bridge, which was built in 1963 and intended to last 30 years, to connect Hatteras Island to the northern Outer Banks. There's no other way to reach Hatteras except by boat.

The bridge handles about 2 million cars a year and the state DOT ranks it a 2 on its safety meter, with 100 being the highest, or most safe, designation.

Video: How to prepare for Hurricane Irene (on this page)

"We're going to shift people and resources around to do what we need to do and keep the roads open," said North Carolina Department of Transportation spokeswoman Nicole Meister. The 2.7-mile bridge won't stay open if it's deemed unsafe — which happened during Hurricane Earl last year — but the state has an emergency ferry terminal ready in that case to get people off the island, Meister said.

Farther north, precautions so far were mainly wait-and-see as officials watched for developments in the forecast.

New York City officials had begun preparations to evacuate residents from low-lying areas of the city if necessary. The city's subway stations and tunnels would likely be flooded in places, and officials plan to shut the system down ahead of time to reduce damage to the infrastructure.

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"The sense is that we're going to be facing a strong tropical storm" with winds of 40 to 60 mph, said Office of Emergency Management Commissioner Joseph F. Bruno.

But Bruno added that the city's agencies were preparing for a Category 1 hurricane with winds surpassing 74 mph and waters surging dangerously in low-lying areas. With five hospitals and nursing homes in the area, officials were readying to possibly evacuate the most frail and needy.

Story: NYC, Long Island vulnerability exposed by Irene

Roads and bridges in Massachusetts are likely to bear the weather in good condition, said Peter Judge, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency. But the agency is planning for flooding and is keeping an eye on the 3,000 public and private dams throughout the state.

The Office of Dam Safety regulates about half the dams in Massachusetts and earlier this year a state audit rated 100 of those owned by 62 cities and towns as unsafe or in poor condition.

For longtime residents of the Outer Banks, getting off the island isn't always the biggest problem.

"The problem is getting back on," said Mary Morgan, who works at the Lighthouse View Motel in Buxton.

Interactive: Hurricanes: Destructive forces of nature (on this page)

Inland flooding can close roads for days in severe situations, making it impossible to get back on the island until the water level falls. That makes people who live here far more reluctant to leave than tourists visiting for a week.

"I am prepared to evacuate," said Jen Ray, owner of The Space Between, a boutique and espresso bar in Frisco. "I'm not sure I'm going to."

The Associated Press, Reuters and NBC News contributed to this report.

Video: Fears rise as Hurricane Irene eyes East Coast

  1. Closed captioning of: Fears rise as Hurricane Irene eyes East Coast

    >> at the conditions right now in the bahamas . hurricane irene has slammed the island chain . there are reports that 90% of the homes on two of the islands there have been severely daniel.

    >> that word is chilling for a lot of people along the coast bracing for irene . just this morning, the first hurricane watch was posted for the outer banks of north carolina where evacuations are currently under way.

    >> already under way. but the real threat could be to the u.s. right here in the northeast as we've been talking about all morning. the most significant hurricane potentially to threaten this area in two decades. experts are warning people here to get prepared.

    >> we're going to help them know how to get prepared. al roker is in north carolina in just a moment. but we begin in the bahamas where irene is bearing down right now. nbc's lillian luciano is in nassau this morning and she joins us. tell us about things there now?

    >>> this is definitely the worst we've seen of hurricane irene so far here in nassau with winds rolling throughout the night. and surf pounding. it's been continuous throughout the entire morning. we haven't endured severe damages, however, and we're keeping power. in terms of the lower bahamas , they were battered throughout the entire day yesterday. and emergency management is assessing damages there. we do know, fortunately, nobody has been injure in that area. authorities are concerned about what they're starting to call an extremely damaging and powerful storm surge that could bring up the water level to ten feet high. as well all know, that tends to be the most damaging hurricanes. we are aware of that. we have seen the water around here. but not to that level yet.

    >> luciano, thank you so much. do take cover yourself. thank you so much. now here's david.

    >>> where and when can we expect irene to begin impacting us here on the east coast . al roker has made his way to north carolina 's outer bank. he's in the town of duck this morning. hey, al. what are we looking at here?

    >> david, we are looking at a potentially catastrophic storm . we don't want to scare people, but this is a storm that could affect 55 million folks up and down the eastern seaboard . here's the latest as to where irene is. right now, a category 3 storm . it has winds of 115 miles per hour. it's 80 miles east/southeast of nassau , bahamas , 735 miles south of cape hatteras , north carolina . it's moving to the northwest at 12 miles per hour. now, we've got warnings up right now obviously for the bahamas . irene , of course, raking that island right now. but we now have tropical storm watches and hurricane watches up along the south carolina and north carolina coach. tropical storm watches from modesto beach to surf city and a hurricane watch from surf city to the north carolina -virginia border. we're already starting to see the effects of irene show up on the radar now just starting to affect parts of florida. but here's what we see as far as the path of irene is concerned. it is going to continue up the coast, parallel to florida coastline, some during the day today, on in to tomorrow. as a category three storm . may strengthen to a category four storm early thunderstorm morning. then continue toward the carolinas as we move through the day on saturday making landfall on the outer banks late saturday on to early sunday as a category 2 storm with 105 mile-per-hour winds and lots of rain. and the other problem is, this is a slow-moving storm . it's forward motion . early sunday -- late sunday night, in to monday morning, approaching the new jersey shore , new york city , long island, on in to boston early monday morning, dropping down to a tropical storm with 70 mile-per-hour winds. but make no mistake, a powerful system with a lot of rain and winds. storm surges are going to be a big issue. coastal flooding, beach erosion , damaging winds, and the storm surge , extreme impact of cape hatteras all the way to boston and interior new england. even if you're not along the coast, if you're inland, you can't put down your guard. because the path of this storm , there could be a margin of error of about 150 to 200 miles as this storm makes the way up the coast. it's been at least 20 years since the northeast has been affected by a storm . i'll have this magnitude. so we'll continue to track it. but, again, as we start to see evacuations go into effect in the carolina coast, the evacuations will start being instigated as we move up the coast later on today.

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