Hurricane Irene became a deadlier threat to Eastern North Carolina on Thursday when its predicted path shifted to the west. Forecasters warned that Irene will attack coastal counties Saturday with powerful winds, floods, 5- to 10-foot storm surges and "large, destructive and life-threatening waves."
Irene is a Category 3 storm with 115 mph winds. It could grow stronger before its expected landfall Saturday afternoon near Morehead City.
Hurricane warnings were posted along the coast and sounds. Beaches from Bogue Banks in Carteret County to the Currituck Banks began emptying under evacuation orders issued for more than 250,000 vacationers and year-round residents.
The National Hurricane Center had said earlier in the week that Irene might stay just offshore as it moved up the Outer Banks. But by Thursday evening, forecasters expressed growing confidence in the new track, which shows the hurricane's center cutting a broad arc across northeastern counties and spilling back into the Atlantic near the Virginia line.
If Irene keeps on the path, the shift means that its most destructive edge - the right front quadrant - will batter sounds, barrier islands and low-lying coastal mainland. And the storm will reach farther inland than originally expected, with damaging winds and heavy rain.
"The worst surge is just to the right of the track, so maybe now we're looking at more storm surge impacts from Cape Lookout up to the Albemarle Sound," said Nick Petro, warning coordination meteorologist in the National Weather Service's Raleigh office. "And we could see as much as 3, 4 or even 5 inches of rain along the Interstate 95 corridor."
The National Hurricane Center warned that Irene's storm surge will lift water levels in the sea and the sounds by 5 to 10 feet. Coastal counties can expect 6 to 10 inches of rain, with up to 15 inches in some spots. As torrential rains loosen the soil, high winds will push down trees and power lines, forecasters said.
Guard, troopers sent
Gov. Bev Perdue sent 180 National Guard troops and 48 state troopers to the coast to help with evacuations that will continue today, and she said hundreds more law enforcement officers were on standby.
The first shelters opened in Wilson and Rocky Mount, with more planned to open for Irene refugees today.
The Federal Emergency Management Administration began stockpiling generators, cots, blankets, food, water, medicine and other storm supplies at a Fort Bragg distribution center. Insurance adjusters and electric utility crews prepared for action after Irene leaves the state Saturday night or early Sunday.
Schools, parks and universities began closing from Elizabeth City to Wilmington, and the state's coastal ferries were scheduled to make their last runs today.
"Our shelters are open," Perdue said at a 6 p.m. Thursday news briefing. "People are evacuating. The Red Cross is in North Carolina. Our warehouses are stocked, and our swift-water teams are ready for rescue, if that's necessary."
How far inland?
Forecasters said it is hard to predict how far inland heavy rains and winds will reach. Goldsboro and Fayetteville could see tropical-storm-force winds, 40 mph or more, as soon as late tonight or early Saturday, said meteorologist Brandon Vincent with the National Weather Service in Raleigh.
"The Triangle is going to be on the western periphery of this thing," Vincent said. "We do expect the possibility of tropical-storm wind gusts here, and periods of heavy rain."
Wake County could see an inch of rain or less on Saturday - or more, Vincent said, if Irene's track shifts farther inland.
Perdue said Irene will be the first hurricane in her memory to strike the state during daylight.
"With a hurricane like this, it's time for all of us to take it very seriously," Perdue said. "There are a lot of newcomers who have moved to the coast of North Carolina who have never seen a hurricane before."
Earlier this week, state and local officials had hoped that Irene would limit most damage to the northern Outer Banks. That changed when forecasters pointed toward a likely landfall near Morehead City and Beaufort around 3 p.m. Saturday.
"We see the storm coming right across Carteret County," Jo Ann Smith, the county's emergency services director, said Thursday. "We're looking at storm surge. We're looking at winds."
Are warnings heeded?
Carteret officials ordered vacationers and residents to leave the Bogue Banks beach towns. Residents also were urged to evacuate from flood-prone lowlands. Smith worried that many North Carolinians aren't taking Irene seriously.
"We live right on the coast, and we're prone to hurricanes. But because we have been blessed and have not had a major event (in recent years), people become complacent," she said.
"I'm really concerned about this one, that people aren't ready. I just hope they listen to our warnings, and if we ask them to evacuate, then we've done that for a reason."