Thousands of residents fled resort towns along the New Jersey shore on Saturday ahead of powerful Hurricane Irene whose arrival was just hours away.
Mandatory evacuations covered all of the state's barrier island beach resorts, including such popular spots as Atlantic City, Cape May and Long Beach Island, and affected hundreds of thousands of residents and summer visitors, officials said.
The looming storm was bringing the biggest waves of the season, prompting scores of surfers to flock to the beaches despite ominous clouds and rain.
"It's the waves," said Guy Gallo of Little Silver, N.J., as he prepared to paddle out into the Atlantic Ocean.
"But you don't want to get caught out when the hurricane hits," he added.
The Category 1 hurricane, expected to hit the region late on Saturday or early on Sunday, is likely to pack winds of 55 to 75 miles an hour (89 to 121 kph), weather experts said.
Damage to resort boardwalks is likely, forecasters said.
At a doughnut shop in Sea Bright, a sign advertising its closing hours read: "Friday 10 p.m., Saturday noon, Sunday, Good Luck."
Casinos and hotels in Atlantic City were emptying after orders by Governor Chris Christie that all casinos close by noon on Saturday. A state of emergency has been in effect in New Jersey since Thursday.
A southbound stretch of nearly 100 miles (161 km) of the Garden State Parkway south of the Raritan River was closed, as was
the Atlantic City Expressway, which heads to Philadelphia.
A spokeswoman for Cape May County, which was under mandatory evacuation orders, said only about 10,000 people remained from about 800,000 people who live there or were visiting.
All along the shore towns, homeowners were taking precautions. In the wealthy enclave of Deal, workers were boarding up
windows on some of its mansions. Household employees huddled in bus shelters, waiting to go home.