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NASSAU (Reuters) - The northeast seaboard, including Washington and financial center New York, rushed to prepare on Thursday for a possible mauling from Hurricane Irene that will hit the U.S. coast this weekend.
From the Carolinas to Cape Cod, more than 50 million people were potentially in Irene's path. States, cities, ports, industries, oil refineries and nuclear plants scrambled to activate emergency plans, while residents stocked up on food and water and worked to secure homes, vehicles and boats.
The U.S. Navy sent the ships of its Second Fleet out of port at Hampton Roads, Virginia, to ride out the expected powerful storm at sea.
Irene, a major Category 3 hurricane, battered the low-lying Bahamas southeast of Florida on Thursday and was expected to sweep northward to hit the North Carolina coast on Saturday, before raking up the remaining Atlantic seaboard.
"All the major metropolitan areas along the Northeast are going to be impacted by the close proximity of the way Irene is going to pass," National Hurricane Center Director Bill Read told Reuters Insider on Thursday. "Being a large hurricane, tropical storm-force winds will extend far inland."
After hitting North Carolina, Irene was expected to weaken to a still-dangerous Category 2 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson intensity scale, and move on Sunday into the Delaware, Maryland and Virginia coastal region, and then up to New York on Monday, Read said. A Category 2 storm carries winds of 96 to 110 mph.
He said Irene could mimic the path of Hurricane Gloria in 1985, a Category 3 storm that hit North Carolina's Outer Banks and then slammed into New York's Long Island and curved through New England, causing $900 million of damage.
U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate briefed President Barack Obama and other top officials on the threat from Irene, which included tropical-storm-force winds or worse in Washington.
Coastal evacuations were under way in North Carolina and more were expected along the East Coast as Irene approaches.
Hurricane watches and warnings were in effect along the Atlantic coast from North Carolina to New Jersey. The governors of North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey and New York declared emergencies for Irene.
Irene will be the first hurricane to hit the U.S. mainland since Ike pounded Texas in 2008.
At 5 p.m. EDT, Irene had sustained winds of 115 miles per hour and its center was about 575 miles south of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the United States' most populous city was bracing to experience at least tropical storm conditions and flooding starting on Sunday. Irene could hit Long Island -- which extends due east from the city -- as a Category 2 hurricane.
"We hope for the best but prepare for the worst," Bloomberg said.
The city was positioning rescue boats and helicopters, working to minimize street flooding and gearing up at hospitals. Evacuations were possible.
"The city has already seen the power of Mother Nature once this week, and Mother Nature may not be done with us yet," Bloomberg said, referring to Tuesday's earthquake that shook the East Coast, frightening millions but causing no deaths.
The New York City mass transit system, the nation's biggest with 8 million passengers a day, may have to be partly or fully shut if the storm causes flooding or high winds that could endanger buses, subways and commuter trains, transit officials said.
Forecasters warned that even if the center of Irene stays offshore as it tracks up the Mid-Atlantic coast, its wide bands could lash cities like Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York with winds and rain, knock out power and trigger flooding.
Oil terminals, refineries and nuclear plants from the Bahamas to Rhode Island were preparing.
Four catastrophe bonds totaling over $1 billion could leave financial investors exposed to insured losses if Hurricane Irene makes a U.S. landfall.
Forecasters went out of their way to emphasize the risks from Irene for the densely populated U.S. Northeast, which has not experienced a direct hit from a hurricane in decades.
"Irene is capable of inundating portions of the coast under 10-15 feet of water, to the highest storm surge depths ever recorded," hurricane expert Jeff Masters of private forecaster Weather Underground wrote in his blog.
Masters gave special warning for the coast from Ocean City, Maryland, to Atlantic City, New Jersey, saying it was possible this stretch of coast -- lined with busy beach resorts this time of year -- would receive a direct hit from a Category 2 hurricane during the highest monthly tide.
Irene caused the deaths of at least one person in Puerto Rico and two in the Dominican Republic, then lashed the islands of the Bahamas. It knocked out knocked out power in capital Nassau on Thursday, and felled trees that blocked roads.
The Bahamas National Emergency Management Agency said there were reports that 90 percent of the homes and structures were destroyed in some settlements in the southeast Acklins and Crooked Islands.
Additional reporting by Tom Brown, Jane Sutton and Manuel Rueda in Miami, Daniel Trotta and Joan Gralla in New York; Vicki Allen and Laura MacInnis in Washington; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Philip Barbara