(AP) Hurricane Irene strengthened overnight to a category 3 storm, wreaking havoc across the Caribbean and sparking evacuation orders in coastal North Carolina. Thousands of people in Ocracoke Island, N.C., have been ordered to evacuate as the storm continues moving towards the East Coast packing winds up to 115 miles per hour. The storm is shaping up to be the most powerful hurricane to strike the East Coast of the United States in years. Craig Fugate, the manager of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, urged those from the Mid-Atlantic region to New England to start preparing now for the possibility of the hurricane's landfall. "It's going to be close and whether we get a brush or whether we have a landfall, it's too early to say," Fugate said. "Go ahead and make sure you're ready and then if evacuations are required, heed those evacuation orders. The Hurricane Center says this storm is going to grow and strengthen...and it's really something people need to be prepared now for so they can be ready if they have to act." Fugate referenced yesterday's surprise 5.8 magnitude earthquake to urge those living in the Northeast to prepare. NOAA/AP Photo An image released by the NOAA made from the... View Full Size NOAA/AP Photo An image released by the NOAA made from the GEOS East satellite shows Hurricane Irene, Aug. 24, 2011 as it moves northwest from the Dominican Republic. Hurricane Irene: What's in Store for the U.S.? Watch Video Hurricane Irene: FEMA Administrator's Warning Watch Video Mystery in Aruba: Boyfriend on Giordano's Claims Watch Video "It's again a reminder that we don't always get to pick the next disaster," Fugate said. "We know this hurricane is coming this way. We just don't know where it's going to hit or how bad it will get. So take time now to get ready." This morning, Irene is moving towards the Bahamas after ripping street signs out of the ground in the Turks and Caicos and destroying buildings in the Dominican Republic. The hurricane's winds stretch over 400 miles -- that's the same width as the entire state of Arizona. The Caribbean islands are low and flat which only fuels the strength of the hurricane, meteorologists say. The storm's surge is 7 to 11 feet, meaning that waters are 7 to 11 feet higher in the Caribbean. Business owners hurried to board up their stores in the Bahamas and tourists started lining up at airports to get out of harm's way. Category 3 Hurricane Irene Pounds Caribbean Honeymooners Jennifer and Todd Napier spent Tuesday at the airport booking flights and looking for hotels on their laptop. "We tried to book a flight yesterday. They wanted to charge us $2,500 extra so we were like, no, we'll just wait it out and then our hotel made an emergency announcement and told us they're going to kick us out," Todd Napier said. Shannon Drury didn't just leave her hotel, she was told the whole Bahamian island of Eleuthera would have to evacuate with officials telling her the danger was "catastrophic." Fran Newman plans to ride out the storm in the Bahamas. "The hotel has already told us the plans they have for us should there be a major storm and I am comfortable with the plans they have," she said. Back in North Carolina, the first ferry has left the tiny barrier island of Ocracoke. Tourists were ordered to evacuate today and some 800 year round island residents were advised to leave by Thursday. The storm is expected to cause flooding, power outages or worse as far north as Maine. The Associated Press contributed to this report.