As the National Hurricane Center issued the first watches for Hurricane Irene along the Carolina coast, officials asked tens of thousands of tourists to cut short their vacation and flee.
Schools in several North Carolina counties closed on what was to be the first day of the academic year as county officials ordered evacuations.
Many visitors to the popular coastal beaches left the area on Wednesday night to avoid traffic, but more still are expected to head out on Thursday.
Residents along the North Carolina coast began boarding up homes and businesses as the latest advisories from the National Hurricane Center confirmed that Irene was headed their way.
At 8 a.m. EDT Thursday, a hurricane watch was issued for north of the town of Surf City, N.C. to the North Carolina-Virginia border, including the Pamlica, Albemarle, and Currituck Sounds.
A tropical storm warning went into effect for South Carolina north of Edisto Beach to Surf City, N.C.
The National Hurricane Center also warned interests in the Mid-Atlantic states as well as New England to monitor the progress of Irene.
While Irene is moving northwest at 13 mph, a turn toward the north is expected early Friday that will drive the storm up the coast toward North Carolina's Outer Banks.
By Thursday morning, Irene had grown into a massive Category 3 tropical cyclone with hurricane-force-winds extending outward up to 70 miles from the storm center and tropical-storm-force winds extending a whopping 225 miles.
Swells from the storm were expected to reach the southeastern coast of the U.S. on Thursday morning, creating dangerous surf conditions, the hurricane center said.
Dozens of Navy ships from the Second Fleet were ordered to leave their port in southeastern Virginia to head out to safer waters. Thursday's order affected 64 ships, some of which were already out at sea.
The coastal area of Dare County, N.C.,which includes Manteo, Nags Head, Duck and historic Kitty Hawk, forced an estimated 150,000 tourists to evacuate and was considering evacuating thousands of year-round residents too.
By late Sunday or Monday morning, North Carolina, with any good luck, will be open for tourism again, Gov. Bev Perdue told local station WRAL.
Those in North Carolina's Outer Banks are used to hurricane threats, and evacuation routes are meticulously planned out down to the order in which counties are allowed to hit the road.
Craig Fugate, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, urged people to talk with local officials, pay attention to local broadcasters, and research a safe place to evacuate to if need be.
When you evacuate, you want to know where you're going and make sure you have somewhere to go, not just get on the road with everybody else and hope you find some place, Fugate said Thursday on CBS's The Early Show.
Visit FEMA's Hurricane Preparedness Site to learn more about how to prepare for the storm.