Emergency officials warned boaters and swimmers in Beaufort County and other coastal communities in the Carolinas to stay on land today and Saturday as Hurricane Irene marches toward the U.S. mainland.
The storm could bring gale force winds to the South Carolina coast, and inland waters will be choppy, meteorologists warned. Rip currents -- narrow, powerful channels of water that can drag swimmers away from shore -- are also in the forecast.
Farther north, the situation looked more perilous as Irene, a powerful Category 3 storm with winds of 115 mph, aimed at North Carolina's Outer Banks and mid-Atlantic states beyond.
"It's going to be a mess," 66-year-old Buxton, N.C., resident Leon Reasor said as he stood inside a local bait shop. "Anyone who tells you they're not worried is a liar."
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Emergency officials in North Carolina expanded evacuation orders to include hundreds of thousands of tourists and locals in four coastal counties, including the Outer Banks, the barrier island chain expected to take the brunt of Irene's first hit over the weekend.
Irene pounded the Bahamas Thursday with widespread damage on at least two islands but no immediate reports of major injuries or deaths. A settlement known as Lovely Bay was destroyed while at least 40 homes were badly damaged on the island of Mayaguana, emergency officials said.
On Hilton Head, waves were "definitely stronger than usual," said Mike Wagner, manager of operations for Shore Beach Service on Hilton Head Island.
"We've called people in if they're any farther out than waist-deep water. If you're not a good swimmer, you should stay out of the water altogether," Wagner said.
The National Weather Service in Charleston issued a tropical storm watch for coastal waters off Beaufort County. That means winds between 39 and 73 mph are expected within 48 hours. Waves are expected to build to 10 to 15 feet within 20 miles of the coast and 15 to 20 feet beyond that, according to forecasts.
"Anyone heading into or out of Beaufort County by boat needs to rethink their plans," said weather service meteorologist Steve Rowley.
Boats should be moored properly, and those living on houseboats should seek shelter on land, the weather service said.
Scott Liggett, Hilton Head Island's director of public facilities and projects, said some beach erosion is expected, including at the island's heel where a renourishment project is slated to begin in early October.
"Whether we replace sand lost from high waves caused by Irene will be driven based on need and budgetary concerns and constraints," Liggett said of the renourishment project.
The National Hurricane center in Miami predicted Irene would strengthen as it approached the East Coast, but forecasters didn't expect it to reach Category 4 strength. The last Category 3 hurricane to hit the East Coast was Jeanne in 2004, which crossed Florida and drenched the Southeast.
The governors of North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and New Jersey made emergency declarations to free up resources, while the Navy began moving dozens of ships from Norfolk and other Virginia ports out to sea, where they can better weather the storm. Emergency officials all the way to New England urged residents in low-lying areas to gather supplies and familiarize themselves with evacuation routes.
Irene is expected to come ashore Saturday in North Carolina with winds of around 115 mph. Forecasters predict it will then move up the East Coast, dumping rain from Virginia to New York City before a much-weakened storm trudges through New England.
Airlines began canceling flights and moving planes out of Irene's path. Hundreds of flight cancellations through the weekend and rippling delays across the country are expected.
In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg urged residents in low-lying areas to line up a place to stay on high ground ahead of possible evacuations. He said he would make a decision by late Friday on evacuating neighborhoods along the water in several boroughs.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead