Hurricane Irene continued to pummel the Bahamas with fierce winds and heavy rains on Thursday as the massive storm inched north on a path that could have it making landfall on the North Carolina coast Saturday and in the Northeast on Sunday.
The core of Hurricane Irene, which was a Category 3 storm early Thursday, was packing wind gusts of up to 125 miles per hour. The storm has been moving slowly over the Bahamas since Wednesday, causing widespread flooding and power outages. Twelve inches of rain is expected to fall on the island nation during the next 36 hours.
On Thursday morning, the National Hurricane Center in Miami issued a hurricane watch for the North Carolina coast from just north of Surf City to the Virginia border. A tropical storm watch, where winds and rains are expected to be somewhat less intense, was issued for the rest of the North Carolina coast, extending south to Edisto Beach in South Carolina.
The storm is expected to spare the Florida coast, passing off central and north Florida on Thursday night and Friday morning as it gathers speed, according to the National Hurricane Center forecast. Swells caused by the storm had already reached the southeastern coast of the United States on Thursday, creating dangerous surf conditions, including rip currents, the hurricane center said.
By early Saturday morning, the storm will have reached the North Carolina coast, though it remains unclear whether it will make landfall or stay offshore, said Dennis Feltgen, a spokesman for the National Hurricane Center.
Projections have the hurricane making landfall somewhere in the Northeast on Sunday — New Jersey, Long Island and Connecticut are all possibilities — though its wind speed will have likely slowed by then.
“Sunday, all day, could be a really bad day,” for the Northeast, Mr. Feltgen said.
Forecasters say Hurricane Irene presents problems unusual for such storms in recent years.
First, the hurricane is unusually large — hurricane force winds of at least 74 miles per hour extend 70 miles from its center, and tropical-storm force winds of at least 40 miles per hour extend 255 miles in all directions.
Also, Hurricane Irene has been slow moving: On Thursday morning it was traveling at about 13 miles per hour, compared with speeds of 30 to 40 miles per hour for some similar storms, Mr. Feltgen said.
Both its size and slow pace could intensify issues like flooding in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, where the ground is already saturated in places from heavy rains this summer.
In New York City on Thursday, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said city workers were clearing catch basins in flood-prone areas of the city. He also said evacuations in beach areas might also be necessary if the hurricane creates large storm surges.
“If the worst scenario is going to happen this weekend, we will activate other elements of our Coastal Storm Plan, including the possibility of evacuating of New Yorkers who live in low-lying areas that could be affected,” Mr. Bloomberg said.
He added: “We don’t yet have enough information yet to make that call. There are still too many unknowns, but we will make a decision on whether to call for evacuating certain areas based on the track, the speed, and the strength of the storm as it moves from the Bahamas up the East Coast.”
In Wilmington, on the North Carolina coast, people on Wednesday were either preparing — or pointedly not doing so.
Bill Viego, a plumber who lives six miles from shore, was catching red drum at Wrightsville Beach. A resident of Wilmington since 1972, he has seen them all — Fran, Bertha and Floyd — and said he had escaped with neither damage nor harm.
“You’ve got to take hurricanes with respect,” Mr. Viego said. “I’m not a fool, but I’m not packing up and running every time one comes.”
Others, though, were dutifully taking a more cautious approach.
One Wal-Mart reported selling out of bottled water, and other stores were without generators and weather radios. Various outdoor events — high school football games, concerts and farmers markets — had been called off.
At Island Tackle and Hardware in Carolina Beach, N.C., people were picking up rope and plywood to board up windows and filling propane tanks.
Dennis Barbour, the shop owner, was discussing the 1996 hurricane season, when Hurricanes Bertha and Fran hit the region.
“Personally, I’m checking my generator at home,” said Mr. Barbour, a former mayor of Carolina Beach who has lived there for 45 years. “We have a generator at the store.”
“It doesn’t bother me to be over prepared and not get much of a blow,” he said.