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

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Once Irene crosses a narrow reach of Long Island Sound, the storm is forecast to track generally north northeast through western Connecticut and western Massachusetts into Vermont and eastern Quebec.

Although forecasters held out some expectation that Irene could strengthen to a Category 4 storm, at least briefly, en route to North Carolina's outer banks, the current outlook keeps the storm in the Category 3 range, with maximum sustained winds of 111 to 130 m.p.h. Forecasters caution that storms of this magnitude will deliver "devastating damage."

Evacuation orders are being implemented along the North Carolina coast, and they may be required for additional stretches of coastline to the north because of the changes to Irene's forecast track, according to Craig Fugate, who heads the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Heeding those orders not only can save the lives of evacuees, he notes, but also can safeguard the lives of rescue crews who otherwise might be sent out because conditions are too dangerous to effect a rescue.

During a briefing Thursday, Mr. Fugate recalled overhearing poignant 911 calls during hurricane Ivan in 2004, when he was still head of Florida's Division of Emergency Management. People either tried to ride out the storm or waited too long to leave in hopes of a favorable change in the forecast.

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