Nightly News   |  August 24, 2011

Irene strengthens, aims for East Coast

Evacuations began on a tiny barrier island off North Carolina as Hurricane Irene kept strengthening near the Bahamas Wednesday, with the U.S. East Coast in its sights. NBC’s Kerry Sanders reports.

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>>> trying to shrug off yesterday's rare earthquake, the east is tonight bracing for ire irene . the now category 3 hurricane we have been telling you about is striking the bahamas at this hour with 120-mile-per-hour winds as it cuts an unwavering path toward a potential east coast landfall. tropical storm winds are blowing more than 200 miles from its center. forecasters expect irene to intensify for a bit and then essentially hug the i-95 corridor up the east coast and as we look at the forecast track, that potentially puts tens of millions of americans at risk from flooding, rains and dangerous winds from north carolina to new england. already tonight, evacuations are under way along north carolina outer banks . our teams are in place and we have two reports tonight beginning with nbc's kerry sanders on cedar island , north carolina . kerry?

>> reporter: good evening, lester, this is the first hurricane to threaten the u.s. main land this year. if irene does make it to the land, the real concern is not just those powerful winds and the rain, but also the tiedal surge, that storm surge that comes ashore that could inundate coastal areas like this. hurricane irene slammed the turks and caicos islands and portions of the bahamas with winds of 100 miles an hour. in nassau, long lines at the airport, and families cut vacations short.

>> we had to load up all of our luggage and put it in plastic bags in the bathtub.

>> reporter: today officials began a mandatory evacuation in ocrocoke island to the main land. the ferries which usually require reservations are now taking passengers first come, first served. like the high tower family who evacuated with their two dogs harley and sampson.

>> it's beautiful, but they said evacuate.

>> reporter: residents up the coast are starting to put up shutters, they're taking notice of forecasters warnings that this storm could impact millions up the coast as far a new england. coastal north carolina farmers have an estimated $150 million worth of corn, soybeans, cotton still in the ground. this farmer just started to harvest his 2,000 acres. you're racing the clock, right?

>> we're racing the clock.

>> reporter: officials told to leave heed the advice.

>> at least you have the option of coming back home. people that don't evacuate may not survive it.

>> reporter: hurricane fran was the last category 3 hurricane to target north carolina , that was 15 years ago. 26 people died in that hurricane, a reminder of how dangerous hurricanes can