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Tourists on a small North Carolina island have begun evacuating as Hurricane Irene heads for the East Coast after leaving more than 11,000 displaced in Dominican Republic.

It won't be an easy task to get thousands of people off Ocracoke Island, which is accessible only by boat. Ocracoke is home to about 800 year-round residents and thousands of vacationers each summer. Tourists started evacuating Wednesday at 5 a.m. The island's residents have been told to evacuate Thursday.

The first ferry to leave the island early Wednesday had around a dozen cars on it.

More than 11,000 displaced in D.R. by Irene's passage

A total of 11,157 people had to abandon their homes in the Dominican Republic due to heavy rains brought by the passage of Hurricane Irene, the authorities reported Tuesday.

Of the total number of affected people, 9,750 are staying in the homes of friends and relatives and the rest are in official shelters, according to a communique issued by the Emergency Operations Center, which is maintaining a maximum alert for a large part of the country.

The agency also said that 1,300 guests in three hotels in the tourist zone of Bayahibe, in the eastern province of Altagracia, were moved to other floors in the same buildings because of flooding caused by the rain from the storm.

The rain has cut off 25 towns in the eastern provinces of El Seibo, San Pedro de Macoris and Monte Plata, officials said.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center announced Tuesday that Irene, which is expected to become a major hurricane, is heading toward the Turks and Caicos Islands.

The eye of the hurricane is located 110 kilometers (68 miles) south of Grand Turk and 85 kilometers (53 miles) north-northwest of the Dominican city of Puerto Plata, the NHC said in its 1500 GMT bulletin.

Irene is currently a Category 2 storm on the ascending five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, with maximum sustained winds of 160 kph (99 mph), and it is predicted to strengthen over the next 48 hours.

As it moves over the warmer waters of the Caribbean Sea, it is quite possible that Irene will become a Category 3 or 4 storm.

Based on reporting by the Associated Press and EFE.

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