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East Coast Braces for Category 3 Irene After Hurricane Slams Bahamas

Authorities say the rough ocean churned up by the outer bands of powerful Category 3 Hurricane Irene have caused at least eight injuries and a near drowning in South Florida.

Palm Beach County officials say eight people were out on a jetty off Boynton Beach Inlet when a wave knocked them over. They say one person was taken to a hospital. Seven others were treated at the scene.

Up the coast in Jupiter, a man swimming in the ocean and couldn't be found right away. However, officials say he later was able to get ashore.

The National Hurricane Center reports that the rough seas are from strong northerly winds on the west side of the hurricane.

Meteorologists recorded a 53 mph gust in West Palm Beach and officials are warning people to stay away from the ocean.

Thousands are fleeing coastal North Carolina and a state of emergency has been declared in Virginia ahead of a the hurricane that pounded the Bahamas before turning its eye toward the U.S. East Coast.

President Barack Obama has also declared an emergency for North Carolina as the state braces for the storm to hit this weekend..

Obama on Thursday night ordered federal aid to supplement state and local responses to the storm.

The Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) can coordinate all disaster relief efforts.

It also means the state is eligible for federal funds to help in cleanup and other needs.

Irene is tightening its aim on the Eastern Seaboard. It threatens up to 65 million people along a shore-hugging path from North Carolina to New England.

Hurricane Irene could hit North Carolina's Outer Banks on Saturday afternoon, packing winds up to 115 miles per hour, and forecasters say it's expected to strengthen into a monstrous Category 4 as it chugs toward the U.S., potentially wrecking havoc as far away as New England.    

The storm has already killed at least three people in the Dominican Republican and forced 38,000 others in the country to evacuate their homes, according to local reports. 

In North Carolina, about 180,000 tourists and residents in coastal Dare County have been told to leave, and forecasters issued a hurricane watch for much of the state's coast. To the north in Virginia, dozens of Navy ships began leaving their port to ride out the storm at sea. And emergency officials all the way to New England were urging residents in low-lying areas to gather supplies and learn the way to a safe location.

"We're getting prepared ... we're asking everybody to have three days of water, three days of food," Florida Gov. Rick Scott told Fox News. "We've got a lot of experience with this."

As the sun rose over the barrier islands in North Carolina on Thursday, tourists packed suitcases in their cars, while locals stocked up on food, water and gas. Traffic was moving briskly Thursday morning on the two-lane highway that cuts through many of the coastal communities, but many feared that would change.

"It's going to be a mess," said 66-year-old Buxton resident Leon Reasor as he stood inside a local bait shop. "Anyone who tells you they're not worried is a liar."

An evacuation order for an estimated 150,000 visitors took effect Thursday in Dare County, while its 35,000 permanent residents were told to begin leaving the next day.

"It wouldn't behoove anyone to stay in these circumstances," Dare County emergency management spokeswoman Sharon Sullivan said. "Businesses are boarding up. Nobody can guarantee their safety."

Craig Fugate, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has urged people to find out if they are in an area that could need to evacuate, figure out which local official would give the order and pay attention to local broadcasters for that information. Among the most important tasks, he said, was figuring out a safe place to go before hitting the road.

All along the East Coast, officials were calculating what they needed to do as Irene continued its march across the Caribbean toward the U.S. 

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell on Thursday declared a state of emergency ahead of Irene's weekend arrival. The declaration allows state resources, such as the National Guard, to be sent to Hampton Roads to help local officials.

McDonnell said he did not plan to order a statewide evacuation or reverse lanes on Interstate 64. But he cautioned eastern Virginia residents who live in low-lying areas to be ready in case of a local evacuation.

In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg urged residents living in low-lying areas on Thursday to line up a place to stay on high ground ahead of possible evacuations this weekend. He said he would make a decision by late Friday on whether to evacuate neighborhoods along the water in several boroughs.

Early Thursday, the storm was slamming the Bahamas with widespread damage reported on at least two southern islands.

While the storm's path isn't definite, officials are taking nothing for granted.

In Maryland, inspections of bridges looking for cracks in the support piers and other structural features found no damage, according to state transportation agency spokeswoman Teri Moss. In Virginia, with a southeastern corner that could be in Irene's way, cities along the coast are reviewing their evacuation plans, said Laura Southard, spokeswoman for the state Department of Emergency Management.

North Carolina's Outer Banks, which look the likeliest to get a serious hit from Irene, have a long history of hurricanes, and building codes and emergency plans reflect that. Structures in the region are designed to withstand up to 110 mph sustained winds and gusts of up to 130 mph for three minutes. Evacuation routes are meticulously planned, down to the order in which counties hit the road.

Ocracoke Island, a tiny Outer Banks community, has already ordered visitors off, but it has special challenges since it's only accessible to the mainland by boat.

Some of the region's most popular destinations rely on the ailing Bonner Bridge, which was built in 1963 and intended to last 30 years, to connect Hatteras Island to the northern Outer Banks. There's no other way to reach Hatteras except by boat.

The bridge handles about 2 million cars a year and the state DOT ranks it a 2 on its safety meter, with 100 being the highest, or most safe, designation.

"We're going to shift people and resources around to do what we need to do and keep the roads open," said North Carolina Department of Transportation spokeswoman Nicole Meister. The 2.7-mile bridge won't stay open if it's deemed unsafe -- which happened during Hurricane Earl last year -- but the state has an emergency ferry terminal ready in that case to get people off the island, Meister said.

Farther north, precautions so far were mainly wait-and-see as officials watched for developments in the forecast.

New York City officials had begun preparations to evacuate residents from low-lying areas of the city if necessary. The city's subway stations and tunnels would likely be flooded in places, and officials plan to shut the system down ahead of time to reduce damage to the infrastructure.

"The sense is that we're going to be facing a strong tropical storm" with winds of 40 to 60 mph, said Office of Emergency Management Commissioner Joseph F. Bruno.

But Bruno added that the city's agencies were preparing for a Category 1 hurricane with winds surpassing 74 mph and waters surging dangerously in low-lying areas. With five hospitals and nursing homes in the area, officials were readying to possibly evacuate the most frail and needy.

Roads and bridges in Massachusetts are likely to bear the weather in good condition, said Peter Judge, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency. But the agency is planning for flooding and is keeping an eye on the 3,000 public and private dams throughout the state.

Meanwhile, a new tropical depression formed far out over the Atlantic on Thursday, with the National Hurricane Center saying it would likely become a tropical storm later in the day.

The Associated Press contributed to this report