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Hurricane watch from Surf City, N.C., to Virginia, as Irene expands reach (VIDEO)

Coastal residents from Surf City, N.C., to the Virginia border should be ready for hurricane conditions within 48 hours, forecasters said Thursday morning. Irene is still a Category 3 hurricane, but it has broadened.

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A hurricane watch is in effect for a stretch of the North Carolina coast, and a tropical storm watch is on for most of South Carolina's coastline, National Hurricane Center forecasters said Thursday morning, as hurricane Irene continued to spiral up through the Bahamas.

The tropical-storm watch includes the coast from Edisto Beach, S.C., to Surf City, N.C. From Surf City north to the North Carolina-Virginia border, the coast is under a hurricane watch.

A tropical storm watch means that residents in the watch areas should expect tropical-storm conditions within 48 hours. A hurricane watch carries the same expectation for tropical-storm conditions, but adds the possibility of hurricane conditions appearing as well.

As of 11 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, Irene was pounding the central Bahamas with maximum sustained winds of 115 miles per hour, giving Irene Category 3 status. The most powerful storms are rated as Category 5.

Irene's intensity has changed little since Wednesday, but its reach has grown. Hurricane-force winds now extend up to 70 miles from the center, compared with 50 miles Wednesday. Tropical-storm-force winds now reach as far as 290 miles from the storm's center, versus 205 miles on Wednesday.

Over the past day, Irene's track forecast after leaving the North Carolina coast for the northeastern US has shifted slightly west. The track, which still carries large uncertainties so far in advance, brings the center of the storm ashore on Long Island near Hempstead, N.Y.

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