Hurricane Irene caused havoc in the low-lying area of the Bahamas and continued its path of destruction toward the U.S. East Coast -- leading to a state of emergency in the six states along the coast.

Irene will make its closest approach to North Carolina by late Friday night and heavy rainfall is possible as far west as central North Carolina and north-central South Carolina.

The Category 2 storm pummeled the northern Bahamas on Thursday, as it continued on its path for an eventual meeting with the Carolinas. The storm could strengthen to a Category 3 storm by Friday, according to the National Weather Center, as East Coasters begin to evacuate coastal towns.

Irene is currently a major Category 2 hurricane with winds of 115 mph. The storm is centered about 575 miles south of Cape Hatteras, N.C., and moving north-northwest at 14 mph.

The states included in the emergency zone are New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, Virginia, Delaware and Maryland. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) strongly encouraged all East Coast residents to take steps now to prepare for severe weather and follow the instructions of the state, tribal and local officials.

The last big hurricane to hit New York was in 1938, when a Category 3 storm struck Long Island. Only five hurricanes have come within 75 miles of New York City, according to weather data dating back to 1851.

But that historic event could be rivaled by Irene, poised to arrive in the northeast by late Sunday at hurricane force, with winds possibly in excess of 100 miles per hour.

Major metropolitan areas in New York are facing threats of flooding, downed trees and power lines and major power outages. Forecasters say Hurricane Irene could be the biggest storm to strike the area in more than half a century, with winds exceeding more than 130 miles per hour.

As the storm continues to strengthen, President Barack Obama signed an emergency declaration for Puerto Rico and ordered federal aid to supplement commonwealth and local response efforts in the area.

North Carolina was under a hurricane watch late Thursday, and emergency officials were expanding evacuation orders to include more than 200,000 tourists and locals in three coastal communities in the Outer Banks.

U.S. weather forecasters expect Hurricane Irene to affect some 65 million people along the east coast in the coming days. The National Hurricane Center said the storm will likely decrease in strength once it climbs higher up the East Coast through colder water. Still, few storms reach the New York area at hurricane strength.

Irene was expected to continue moving northwest for the next 12 to 24 hours before heading north to northeast, following the coastline. I expect New York County to get 1 to 3 inches of rain with winds at 30 to 40 mph, said Craig Evanego of the National Weather Service at State College, Pa.

In advance preparation for the storm, FEMA National Incident Management Assistance Teams (IMATs) are on the ground in North Carolina and Virginia and arrived in South Carolina on Thursday in anticipation of further deployment to potential impact areas along the east coast of the U.S.

In addition, Regional IMATs are being deployed to Connecticut, Maryland, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont, to coordinate with state, tribal and local officials to identify needs and shortfalls impacting potential disaster response and recovery efforts.