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updated 8/25/2011 2:56:29 PM ET 2011-08-25T18:56:29

Officials along the East Coast of the United States have begun ordering the evacuation of tourists from barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina in anticipation that Irene will become the first major hurricane to strike the region in seven years.

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Tens of thousands of tourists on North Carolina's Outer Banks were told Thursday to cut short vacations and leave the exposed strip of coastal villages and beaches as Hurricane Irene approaches.

Hurricane Irene has severely damaged dozens of homes in the southern Bahamas as it cuts a destructive path through the island chain.

The National Emergency Management Agency reported that a settlement known as Lovely Bay on Acklins island in the Bahamas was destroyed. The agency said in a statement that at least 40 homes were badly damaged on the island of Mayaguana. Authorities were still gathering damage reports.

Trees were knocked down and streets flooded throughout the archipelago but there are no reports of deaths or injuries.

Story: Stay or go? Officials ponder Irene evacuations

Hurricane Irene's wind weakened to about 115 mph (185 kph) Thursday as the storm battered the island of Eleuthera. Winds in the capital of Nassau were not expected to exceed 65 mph (105 kph).

Forecasters said, however, that 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 (210 mph).

The evacuation order for North Carolina's string of barrier islands went into effect Thursday morning and officials estimated up to 150,000 tourists would be leaving. Authorities concerned about traffic closed schools in the region on what was to be the first day of the academic year.

In Virginia, the U.S. Navy ordered the Second Fleet to leave Norfolk Naval Station to keep ships safe from the approaching hurricane. Thursday's order applied to 64 ships in southeastern Virginia. Nine ships were already at sea early Thursday with more on the way.

The Navy said ships that are under way can better weather such storms. The move will also help protect piers from being damaged.

Meanwhile, a new tropical depression formed far out over the Atlantic early Thursday, with the National Hurricane Center saying it would likely become a tropical storm later in the day.

Irene heads toward Bahamas cruise ports

Forecasters say that Irene could hit North Carolina's Outer Banks on Saturday afternoon.

It's then 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.

All along the seaboard, officials were scrambling to inspect bridges, dusting off evacuation plans and getting sandbags ready for potential floods.

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

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

Story: East Coast braces as Irene warnings spread northward

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

That is not the case. The Garden State has gotten twice as much rain this month as in a normal August, and high tide happens at 8 a.m. EDT (1200 GMT) on Sunday, when Irene might be passing by.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Video: N.C. braces for Irene

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