A monstrous Hurricane Irene barrelled toward the Eastern Seabord Friday, lashing at North Carolina with tropical storm-force winds as it continued its destructive course northwards along the coast, even forcing New York City to close its subway service.

North Carolina's Outer Banks took a beating from the storm's outer bands, which dumped rain and whipped up winds of almost 160 km/h. Although Irene had lost some strength, the ferocious Category 2 storm still threatens such a large swath of the East Coast that U.S. President Barack Obama is calling it "historic," and urging people in North Carolina and New York to prepare for the worst.

Forecasters said Friday night the system was moving north-northeast, spreading tropical storm conditions all over southeastern North Carolina. As of 8 p.m. ET, the hurricane was 425 kilometres south-southwest of Cape Lookout, N.C., with maximum sustained winds at 160 km/h.

"All indications point to this being a historic hurricane. If you are given an evacuation order, follow it."

—U.S. President Barack Obama

The storm's main thrust won't hit the Carolina coast until early Saturday, and could bring storm surges of two to three metres high, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Obama, as well as authorities in several states, implored people to take Irene seriously. As much as $10 billion in damages are projected, based on the latest weather data. So far, seven East Coast states have declared states of emergency: New York, New Jersey, Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland, Delaware and Connecticut.

By evening, Washington Mayor Vincent Gray had also declared a state of emergency for the nation's capital. Baltimore, which has a population of 621,000 and is the largest city in Maryland, has also done so.

Obama addressed the nation from his vacation home on Martha's Vineyard, Mass., on Friday morning as the storm reared toward the U.S., where a hurricane warning has been extended north to New Jersey. Potentially, 65 million people live in the storm's path.

"I cannot stress this highly enough — if you are in the projected path of this hurricane, you have to take precautions now … we all hope for the best but have to prepare for the worst," Obama said after a briefing from top federal officials.

'Long night ahead'

"All indications point to this being a historic hurricane," he said. "If you are given an evacuation order, follow it.

"Don't wait, don't delay."

Obama also urged people to make plans, including having enough food and other supplies, and to know their evacuation routes. He has cut short his vacation a day to return to the White House on Friday ahead of the storm hitting the Washington, D.C., region.

The warning area now extends from North Carolina's coast up to Sandy Hook, N.J., just south of New York City. A hurricane warning means hurricane conditions are expected somewhere within the warning area within 36 hours.

Just a couple of hours after Obama's address, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said New York City's mass transit system — subways, buses and commuter lines catering to the surrounding suburbs, serving eight million riders a day — will close down at about noon Saturday, ahead of Irene's expected battering of the city.

In New York City, mayor Michael Bloomerg has ordered a mandatory evacuation of people living in low-lying areas — something the city has never done before. About 270,000 residents have been told to find higher ground by 5 p.m. ET Saturday in America's most densely populated city.

"We've never done a mandatory evacuation before, and we wouldn't be doing it now if we didn't think this storm had the potential to be very serious," Bloomberg said.

The final runs for subways, buses and commuter trains in the city, on Long Island and in the northern suburbs will end around noon Saturday.

Hurricane Irene timeline

Hurricane Irene is churning toward North America's Atlantic coast. The U.S. Hurricane Center says the storm is expected to:

  • Approach the North Carolina coast by Friday night
  • Pass "near or over" the North Carolina coast Saturday
  • By Sunday, the storm should be tracking up the U.S. East Coast towards Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey and New York
  • Irene could swipe parts of Atlantic Canada and southern Quebec by late Sunday or early Monday, the Canadian Hurricane Center said.

CNN is tracking state-by-state developments as Irene approaches.

CBC News meteorologist Nick Czernkovich said some of the coastal sections of North Carolina were already seeing the effects of tropical storm-force winds. "That's the first step before we see hurricane-force winds," he said, adding that storm surges could reach up to 3.5 metres.

"This is just the beginning of what's going to be a long night ahead tonight."

Irene has been downgraded to a Category 2 storm, with maximum sustained winds of over 175 km/h, according to the latest briefing by the National Hurricane Center, which stressed that Irene is "taking aim" at the East Coast.

But forecasters cautioned that some re-strengthening is possible, and the storm is expected to be near the threshold between a Category 2 and 3 storm as it bears down on North Carolina's coast.

In the meantime, Obama has called governors of states and mayors of communities in the expected hurricane path. In North Carolina and New York, residents were already stocking up on food, supplies and even power generators, some vowing to stay at stores all night until they get the backup electricity units.

Obama urged people to check two government websites that give tips on how to prepare for emergencies: www.ready.gov and www.listo.gov. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has been deploying teams up and down the East Coast along Irene's projected path, with millions of litres of water, millions of meals and tens of thousands of cots and blankets positioned along the Eastern Seaboard and the American Red Cross preparing shelters in affected states.

The hurricane centre said the core of the hurricane will pass "well off the coast" of northeastern Florida on Friday. It was expected to approach the North Carolina coast Friday night and pass "near or over the North Carolina coast" on Saturday.

"Hurricane Irene is a large storm and expected to impact a number of our coastal counties," North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue said.

North Carolina's coastal counties have already issued evacuation orders covering more than 200,000 people, including tourists and full-time residents.

P.O.V.

What are you doing to prepare for Hurricane Irene? Take our survey.

As tourists and locals alike moved out of the area, government officials opened shelters and also urged people to prepare for the storm as it moves toward the U.S. East Coast.

Obama declared a state of emergency in North Carolina on Thursday, to allow the state to access federal resources to help deal with the powerful storm.

On Friday, the hurricane centre urged people to prepare for high winds, heavy rains, heavy surf and storm surges along the coast.

inside-irene_still_track

(CBC)

"The surge will be accompanied by large, destructive and life-threatening waves."

An unusually large number of people may be affected by Irene because it is forecast to stay just offshore — and thus retain much of its power — as it inches up the coast from North Carolina to New England.

All eyes were on Irene's projected path, which showed it could bring misery to every city along the I-95 corridor, including Washington, New York and Boston.

Warnings and watches

Get the latest hurricane warnings and watches from the  U.S. National Hurricane Center

The Canadian Hurricane Centre is also tracking the massive storm.

"One of my greatest nightmares was having a major hurricane go up the whole Northeast coast," Max Mayfield, the centre's retired director, told The Associated Press.

He said the damage will probably climb into billions of dollars: "This is going to have an impact on the United States economy."

The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said damages could exceed most previous storms because so many people live along the East Coast and property values are high. One forecasting firm, Kinetic Analysis Corp., predicted damages could cost up to $10 billion, based on the latest weather data.

"We've got a lot more people that are potentially in the path of this storm," FEMA Director Craig Fugate said in an interview with The Associated Press.

"This is one of the largest populations that will be impacted by one storm at one time."

In New York City, officials are preparing for major disruptions.

NYC police may use rowboats

Mayor Bloomberg noted Thursday that plans are in place to move hospital patients and people in nursing homes out of low-lying areas. Shelters will be open by Friday afternoon for people who needed a place to go.

Flights grounded

Aviation officials said they will also close the five main New York City-area airports to arriving passenger flights beginning at noon on Saturday. U.S. airlines are also cancelling at least 6,100 flights, potentially leaving hundreds of thousands of airline passengers grounded at airports this weekend.

  • United Continental Holdings Inc., the world's largest airline company, said late Friday it would cancel 2,300 flights Saturday and Sunday.
  • Delta Air Lines said Friday it would cancel 1,300 flights this weekend and shut down entirely at New York-area airports on Sunday.
  • JetBlue Airways had earlier said it would cancel about 880 flights, mostly between hub airports in New York and Boston scheduled to fly from Saturday until Monday.
  • US Airways cancelled 1,166 flights for Saturday and Sunday.
  • American Airlines, which cancelled 32 flights on Friday, said it would also scrub 265 flights on Saturday and possibly more on Sunday.
  • AirTran Airways, owned by Southwest Airlines, cancelled 265 flights through Monday.

Bloomberg said street festivals and events would have to be curtailed throughout the city — not just in low-lying areas — over the weekend to make way for emergency vehicles.

The anticipated severe weather and hazardous travel conditions have also prompted schools to postpone activities. At Columbia University, for instance, a move-in day for new students has been postponed from Sunday to Monday, from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET, and check-in hours for Tuesday have been extended.

Police are also deploying rowboats to each precinct to replace cruisers should the streets flood, CBC's David Common said from New York City.

The Canadian Hurricane Centre is also tracking the storm  as it moves towards the coast. Forecasters said Irene would likely hit some areas of Atlantic Canada and southern Quebec "late Sunday into Monday as it weakens."

Forecasters said it is still too early to tell exactly where the heaviest rain and strongest winds will occur when the storm approaches Canadian territory.

Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada has issued travel warnings advising Canadians to avoid non-essential travel to the central, southeastern and northwestern Bahamas and parts of the U.S. East Coast expected to be affected by Irene.

With files from The Associated Press