HATTERAS, N.C. (AP) -- Tourists began evacuating from a tiny barrier island off North Carolina on Wednesday as Hurricane Irene strengthened to a major Category 3 storm over the Bahamas with the East Coast in its sights.

So far, things were going smoothly, said Tommy Hutcherson, owner of the Ocracoke Variety Store on Ocracoke Island. Cars had lined up at gas pumps to top off before leaving ahead of Irene, which had winds near 120 mph as of Wednesday afternoon. Irene is expected to get stronger over warm ocean waters and could become a Category 4 storm with winds of at least 131 mph by Thursday.

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The evacuation was a test of whether people in the crosshairs of the first major hurricane along the East Coast in years would heed orders to get out of the way. As Irene churned in the Caribbean, tourists scurried from hotels in the Bahamian capital of Nassau to catch flights off the island before the airport's expected afternoon closure. Officials as far north as Rhode Island and Massachusetts in the U.S. also were getting ready for Irene.

The first ferry to leave Ocracoke Island in North Carolina arrived just before 5:30 a.m. in nearby Hatteras with around a dozen cars on board.

The 16-mile-long barrier island is accessible only by boats that can carry no more than 50 cars at a time. It is home to about 800 year-round residents and a tourist population that swells into the thousands when vacationers rent rooms and cottages. Tourists were told to evacuate Wednesday. Island residents were told to get out on Thursday.