North Carolina and South Carolina (NBC and MSNBC.com) --- As Hurricane Irene started lashing the Carolinas with rain Friday, President Barack Obama warned coastal residents to prepare for the worst, saying all indications point to Irene being a "historic" storm.
"Don't wait, don't delay," the president said from his vacation on Martha's Vineyard.
With Irene bearing down, people in the storm's path headed inland, made last-minute preparations and monitored its every subtle movement. Irene had the potential to cause billions of dollars in damage all along a densely populated arc that includes Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Boston and beyond. At least 65 million people are in its projected track.
Rain from its outer bands began falling along the North and South Carolina coast early Friday. Swells and 6- to 9-foot waves were reported along the Outer Banks. Winds were expected to pick up later. Thousands had already lost power as the fringes of the storm began raking the shore.
The hurricane warning was extended into the Chesapeake Bay as far as Drum Point, and existing warnings remained in effect from North Carolina to New Jersey. A hurricane watch was in effect even farther north and included Long Island, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, Mass.
By late Friday morning, Irene remained a Category 2 storm with maximum sustained winds near 105 mph. Little change in strength was expected by the time the heart of the storm reaches the North Carolina coast on Saturday and the storm is no longer expected to regain Category 3 status, the National Hurricane Center said.
"One of my greatest nightmares was having a major hurricane go up the whole Northeast coast," said Max Mayfield, a former National Hurricane Center director. "This is going to be a real challenge ... There's going to be millions of people affected."
Below is a look at impacts and preparations by region:
North Carolina and mid-Atlantic region
In the Tar Heel State, traffic was steady as people left the Outer Banks. Tourists were ordered to leave the barrier islands Thursday and many residents were following as ordered Friday.
At a gas station in Nags Head, Pete Reynolds said he wanted to make sure he had enough fuel for the long trip. The retired 68-year-old teacher spent part of Thursday getting his house ready for the hurricane. Now, he and his wife, Susan, were heading to the New Jersey area to stay with their son's family.
"We felt like we would be OK and we could ride out the storm," said Reynolds, who lives in Nags Head. "But when they announced mandatory evacuations, I knew it was serious."
Speaking Friday on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue said the state has mobilized officials and resources — including Highway Patrol troopers, the Red Cross and National Guardsmen — to deal with the storm's immediate aftermath.
"We're as ready as we can be at this time," she said.
North Carolina was just first in line along the Eastern Seaboard — home to some of the nation's most heavily populated areas and some of its priciest real estate. Besides major cities, sprawling suburban bedroom communities, ports, airports, highway networks, cropland and mile after mile of built-up beachfront neighborhoods are in harm's way.
As thousands fled beach towns, some farmers began pulling up their crops.
North Carolina farmer Wilson Daughtry has lost count of how many times his crops have been wiped out by storms that regularly blow up from the tropics.
"That's the price of living in paradise," he said of a fertile farm belt that's weathered an unusually hot and dry summer. Any deluge from Irene's rain bands could wipe out many crops just when they are ready for harvesting.
What's at stake in North Carolina? Latest figures show coastal North Carolina's fields earned nearly $6.3 billion in farm income in 2009 alone from its tobacco, corn and other crops.
Maryland and Washington, D.C.
Beyond North Carolina, the beach community of Ocean City, Md., was taking no chances, ordering thousands of people to leave.
"This is not a time to get out the camera and sit on the beach and take pictures of the waves," said Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley.
In Washington, Irene dashed hopes of dedicating a 30-foot sculpture to the late Martin Luther King Jr. on the National Mall on Sunday with the help of President Barack Obama. While a direct strike on the nation's capital appeared slim, organizers said the forecasts of wind and heavy rain made it too dangerous to summon a throng they initially expected to number up to 250,000 strong.
New York and the tri-state area
Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers were told Thursday to pack a bag and be prepared to move elsewhere. The nation's biggest city hasn't seen a hurricane in decades.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered nursing homes and five hospitals in low-lying areas evacuated beginning Friday and said he would order 270,000 other people moved by Saturday if the storm stays on its current path.
"For the general public, it's a good idea to move Friday," Bloomberg said. "Keep in mind, it is possible — I don't know that I want to say likely — but it is very conceivable ... that Saturday morning at 8 o'clock, we're going to say, 'Look, the forecast has not changed. The storm is still barreling down on us. It's still very dangerous. You must get out of these areas.'"
Evacuating hundreds of thousands of people would be particularly difficult in New York, where there are about 1.6 million people in Manhattan, many without cars. There are about 6.8 million in the city's other four boroughs.
"Don't wait until the last minute," the mayor said. "If you can move out on Friday, that's great."
Bloomberg advised residents on the southern tip of Manhattan and on Brooklyn's Coney Island to start moving items upstairs and to be ready to leave immediately. Apartment building managers emailed residents, telling them to close windows and expect power outages. Flyers were posted in building lobbies.
"If you have a car and you live in a low-lying area, my suggestion is to park on top of a hill, not in the valley," Bloomberg said. "It's those kinds of things. Take some precautions now, so that if it gets to that you'll have less to do."
Forecasters said passing near Manhattan could lead to a nightmare scenario: shattered glass falling from skyscrapers, flooded subways and seawater coursing through the streets.
Even if the winds aren't strong enough to damage buildings in a metropolis made largely of brick, concrete and steel, a lot of New York's subway system and other infrastructure is underground and subject to flooding in the event of an unusually strong storm surge or heavy rains, authorities noted.
New York City's two airports also are close to the water and could be inundated, as could densely packed neighborhoods, if the storm pushes ocean water into the city's waterways, officials said. The city had a brush with a tropical storm, Hanna, in 2008 that dumped 3 inches of rain in Manhattan.
In the last 200 years, New York has seen only a few significant hurricanes. In September of 1821, a hurricane raised tides by 13 feet in an hour and flooded all of Manhattan south of Canal Street, the southernmost tip of the city. The area now includes Wall Street and the World Trade Center memorial.
In Connecticut, Gov. Daniel P. Malloy declared a state of emergency and warned there could be prolonged power outages if Irene dumps up to a foot of rain on already saturated ground as some fear. He said emergency responders must be ready in event of any evacuations from heavily developed urban areas.
"We are a much more urban state than we were in 1938," he said, referring to the year that the so-called "Long Island Express" hurricane killed 600 people and caused major damage with 17-foot storm surges and high winds.
The urban population explosion in recent decades also worries New Jersey officials. Gov. Chris Christie encouraged anyone on that state's heavily built-up shoreline to begin preparations to leave.
Areas north of New York and Connecticut are also unaccustomed to direct hits from hurricanes. Maine lobsterman Greg Griffin, who fishes from Portland, Maine, still recalls the clobbering when Hurricane Gloria struck in 1985 and said this one is not one to ignore after years without a large, dangerous storm.
"We have a young generation of lobstermen who've never experienced a full-blown hurricane," Griffin warned.
The potential for flooding and wind damage are Irene's greatest threats to Rhode Island, still smarting from the 2010 spring floods that devastated parts of the Ocean State.
Posted to the web by Alyssa Kroeten