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Alert as Hurricane Irene nears US

Thousands of holidaymakers on the east coast of the United States have been ordered to head home as Hurricane Irene approaches after pounding the Bahamas islands chain.

The tourists on North Carolina's Outer Banks were told to leave the exposed strip of coastal villages and beaches.

Hurricane Irene has severely damaged dozens of homes in the southern Bahamas.

The National Emergency Management Agency reported that a settlement known as Lovely Bay on Acklins island in the Bahamas was destroyed.

The agency said at least 40 homes were badly damaged on the island of Mayaguana. Authorities were still gathering damage reports. Trees were knocked down and streets flooded throughout the archipelago but there are no reports of deaths or injuries.

Hurricane Irene's wind weakened to about 115 mph on Thursday as the storm battered the island of Eleuthera. Winds in the capital of Nassau were not expected to exceed 65 mph.

Forecasters said, however, that the winds will ramp up quickly over the next day and Irene was expected to blow into a monstrous Category 4 with winds at least 131 mph.

The evacuation order for North Carolina's string of barrier islands went into effect on Thursday and officials estimated up to 150,000 tourists would be leaving.

In Virginia, the US Navy ordered the Second Fleet to leave Norfolk Naval Station to keep ships safe from the approaching hurricane. The order applied to 64 ships in south-eastern Virginia. Nine ships were already at sea with more on the way. The Navy said ships that are under way can better weather such storms. The move will also help protect piers from being damaged.

Forecasters say that Irene could hit North Carolina's Outer Banks on Saturday afternoon. It is then predicted to chug up the East Coast, dumping rain from Virginia to New York City before a much-weakened form reaches land in Connecticut. Finally, it should peter out in Maine by Monday afternoon.

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