WILMINGTON, N.C. —People stocked up on food, boarded windows and gassed up their cars Tuesday as Hurricane Irene threatened to become the most powerful storm to hit the East Coast in seven years.
Water, bread and batteries disappeared from store shelves. Lines formed at the pump. From Florida to Maine, residents were told to brace for flash flooding and power outages.
Hundreds of miles south, Irene swirled through the Caribbean, giving a glimpse of what was to come. Homes were inundated with water, residents took refuge in schools and churches, and more than a million people were without electricity. One woman was killed in Puerto Rico.
Forecasters warned it could get worse: The storm was likely to strengthen into a Category 4 monster by the time it makes a landfall in the U.S. this weekend, most likely hitting North Carolina. Irene could crawl up the coast Sunday toward the Northeast region, where residents aren't accustomed to such storms.
Officials dusted off evacuation plans and readied for the first hurricane to threaten the U.S. in three years. It's been more seven years since a major hurricane, considered a Category 3 with winds of at least 111 mph, hit the East Coast. Hurricane Jeanne came ashore on Florida's east coast in 2004.
Though Irene was downgraded to a Category 1 storm on Tuesday with maximum sustained winds of 90 mph, forecasters believed it would strengthen over warm waters.
"I'm not panicking, but I was born and raised here," said Peggy Temple, of Wrightsville Beach, N.C.
She bought sandbags to protect her first-floor property from flooding.
"I know the drill. You want to be ready, because you can't be putting up storm shutters with 100 mile an hour winds and torrential rain," she said.
Nearby, scores of bronzed sunbathers strolled around in bathing suits and towels, soaking up one of the last weeks of the summer tourist season.
On Ocracoke Island, tourists and residents were told to leave by Thursday so the island's ferries wouldn't be overwhelmed. But many on the 16-mile-long barrier island would probably stay, said Tommy Hutcherson, who serves on the local board that issues evacuation orders.
"I'll be here," said Hutcherson, who has lived on Ocracoke for 29 years. "A lot of the locals will choose to stay."