State officials and an outside consultant said that North Carolina, especially along the Outer Banks, is well-equipped to handle evacuations.
An evacuation order for Dare County went into effect Thursday morning and officials estimated up to 150,000 tourists would be leaving. Authorities concerned about traffic closed schools in Dare and a neighboring county on what was to be the first day of the academic year. Dare officials announced later Thursday an evacuation order for more than 30,000 year-round residents starting Friday morning.
By Thursday morning, both tourists and residents on Ocracoke Island and mainland Hyde County also had been told to evacuate. Hyde County residents were directed to inland shelters. Leaders in Currituck County, north of Dare County, also ordered tourists Thursday to leave.
"It wouldn't behoove anyone to stay in these circumstances," said Dare emergency management spokeswoman Sharon Sullivan. "Businesses are boarding up. Nobody can guarantee their safety."
Some visitors left Wednesday night to avoid traffic on the main road that cuts through many communities. As of early Thursday there was no crush of traffic, but many expected that could change.
"They're moving a lot of traffic on the road," state emergency management director Doug Hoell said.
Gearing up for approaching hurricanes is an almost annual occurrence in North Carolina, so planning is extensive and almost second nature.
"They have very competent emergency management directors both at the local level and at the state level," said Don Lewis, a Florida-based consultant with design firm Atkins North America who studies evacuation plans. "This isn't like a brand-new situation that they haven't handled before."
Building codes along the Outer Banks require structures to be reinforced to withstand sustained winds of up to 110 mph and gusts up to 130 mph. Houses close to the water must be elevated on pilings to keep them above anticipated storm surges and required setbacks preserve sand dunes to provide additional protection.
North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue has declared a state of emergency for the region east of Interstate 95 in preparation of approaching Hurricane Irene.
Perdue also said Thursday she has asked President Barack Obama to declare a federal emergency ahead of the storm reaching North Carolina this weekend to help accelerate response efforts.
The state declaration gives Perdue and state officials more power to respond to the storm, particularly helping local governments with any recovery.
The North Carolina National Guard already has 20 service members deployed and working at the state's two emergency response warehouses. Another 150 or so are on standby.
The North Carolina State Highway Patrol has a more than 200-page "coastal evacuation plan" handbook that lays out trooper staffing levels and checkpoints, locations of traffic lights, law enforcement radio frequencies and even when troopers should seek shelter when winds reach above 35 mph.
The patrol prepares for as many as 300,000 tourists fleeing Dare County during an evacuation, with motorists largely heading west on U.S. Highway 64 to Raleigh and N.C. Highways 158 and 12 North to southeastern Virginia.
"North Carolina is well apt at handling hurricanes," Highway Patrol Sgt. Jeff Gordon said. The largest obstacle to an orderly evacuation, Gordon said, comes from vacationers who put off leaving despite a mandatory order.
"If everyone tried to depart or leave at one time, you're going to have a traffic jam," he said. "Our human nature is to wait and see how things pan out. That's what we don't want people to do."
Gov. Beverly Perdue said Thursday she was worried about reports that Ocracoke ferries -- the only way for most people to get off the island -- were empty. She said storm tracks Thursday had Ocracoke receiving the brunt of the storm. Ocracoke Island had told visitors to leave starting Wednesday morning.
"People on Ocracoke Island need to take this seriously," Perdue said at a news conference.
Gordon said recent budget cuts at the patrol won't weaken the force's response to the storm, saying troopers are on standby and will be brought in from the western part of the state if needed. The Legislature ordered 19 patrol positions eliminated this month and directed the patrol to come up with $4.5 million in additional cuts this year.
Gordon pointed out there are 1,800 patrol positions statewide.
"The cutbacks are not going to affect the public's safety," he said.
Workers are moving heavy equipment on Hatteras Island into position to keep N.C. 12 open as long as it is safe for crews to work, according to State Department of Transportation spokeswoman Nicole Meister. The island highway is routinely over washed with water and sand during big storms.
Immediately after the storm, workers will also inspect the aging Bonner Bridge. The 2.7-mile span is the only link to the mainland for Outer Banks islands located south of Oregon Inlet. The 47-year-old bridge will not remain open unless engineers are sure it is safe, she said.
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 safest, designation.
County emergency leaders, in consultation with state officials, have the final decision on mandatory evacuation orders. Dare County officials always have a difficult task as a storm approaches the East Coast about when to start an evacuation, Lewis said.
"What's tricky for the Outer Banks is the forward speed of the storm," Lewis said. "That makes it more difficult to get the time just right."
Officials on the mainland, too, have learned from past storms to better prepare for emergencies.
In Trenton, where flooding from the Trent River reached the rooftops of many homes during Hurricane Floyd in 1999, workers were cleaning out ditches and storm drains in preparation for heavy rains. New digital gauges provide emergency officials real-time data about rising water and a new reverse 911 system is in place to get the word out to residents quickly.
Mayor Darlene Spivey was closely watching for updates on Irene's track. She took some comfort as newer projections showed the storm's path shifting east.
"The farther it goes out to sea, the better off we'll be," she said.
Good fortune might come in other ways, too. With students in traditional North Carolina public schools back in classes starting Thursday and college students done with vacation, the tourism season remains brisk but may be no longer at its peak.
"If you don't have many tourists or seasonable people out there you can pull out the evacuation in a half-day," Lewis said. "That definitely works to the Outer Banks' advantage."
Lewis said southeastern states, in particular South Carolina, have improved their coastal evacuation plans after Floyd. The massive storm caught many fleeing motorists in hours-long traffic jams in South Carolina.
"They learned from that event," Lewis said.