EASTERN SEABOARD (CBS NEWS) – Thousands were fleeing an exposed strip of coastal villages and beaches off North Carolina on Thursday as Irene approached, threatening to become the first major hurricane to hit the East Coast in seven years.

Hours after a hurricane watch was issued for much of the state’s coast, emergency officials expanded evacuation orders to include hundreds of thousands of tourists and locals in three counties. The areas include the barrier island chain known as the Outer Banks, which is expected to take the brunt of Irene’s first hit over the weekend.

New Jersey was the latest state to declare a state of emergency early Thursday afternoon. Gov. Chris Christie said the current track calls for New Jersey to face a “serious, significant event” and warned residents to “prepare for the worst.”

Christie said he will not order mandatory evacuations unless absolutely necessary. However, the governor is asking people not to go to the Jersey shore this weekend and for those with rental properties to leave Thursday or Friday.