Hurricane Isabel's outer bands moving onshore
(CNN) -- Hurricane Isabel's winds began lashing the coasts of North Carolina and Virginia early Thursday morning, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Rain bands were spreading across eastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia. The center of Isabel is expected to make landfall in eastern North Carolina during the day Thursday, the center predicts. However, conditions will deteriorate over a large area well before the center reaches the coast.
Forecasters say inland cities like Richmond, Virginia, and Washington could experience hurricane-strength winds as Isabel moves ashore.
All federal government offices in the Washington area were ordered closed Thursday due to the storm, the Office of Personnel Management announced Wednesday evening. (Full story)
The size of the storm -- with tropical storm-force winds extending up to 345 miles (555 kilometers) from its eye and hurricane-force winds stretching about 115 miles (185 kilometers) outward -- has officials worried up and down the East Coast. The governors of Virginia and North Carolina have already declared states of emergency.
"Basically, we're talking about a swath that's at least 100 miles (161 kilometers) wide on either side [of landfall] where there will be very strong winds and heavy rain and some storm surge," said Ed Rappaport, the deputy director of the center, located in Miami, Florida.
As of 5 a.m. EDT, the eye of Hurricane Isabel was about 155 miles (249 kilometers) south-southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, with maximum sustained winds of 105 mph (169 kph). It was moving to the northwest near 14 mph (22 kph).
The storm is expected to bring a storm surge of 7 to 11 feet (2 to 3.3 meters) above normal ocean levels and dump 6 to 10 inches (15 to 25 centimeters) of rain along its path. Flooding could occur from New Jersey to South Carolina.
A hurricane warning stretches from Cape Fear, North Carolina, about 260 miles (418 kilometers) northward to Chincoteague, Virginia, including the Chesapeake Bay area south of Smith Point.
Tropical storm warnings are in place from Cape Fear southward to South Santee River in South Carolina, a stretch of about 110 miles (177 kilometers), and north about 190 miles (306 kilometers) from Chincoteague to Sandy Hook, New Jersey, an area that includes Delaware Bay. A tropical storm warning was extended eastward from Sandy Hook, New Jersey, to Moriches Inlet, New York.
In North Carolina, about 100,000 residents have been ordered to evacuate. Local authorities are asking residents who remain behind to provide contacts for next of kin. Another 100,000 residents in neighboring Virginia are under mandatory evacuation.
In Virginia Beach, Virginia, Mayor Meyera Oberndorf said the city is working with state officials to get the word out to residents in low-lying areas to evacuate.
"Of course, some of the older hands always let you know that they've been through hurricanes before, so they're just not going to hop, skip and jump. But we always remind them that if they come in harm's way after we've told them to evacuate, there won't be anyone to come in and rescue them," the mayor told CNN.
Despite the warning, dozens of people came down to the beach Wednesday afternoon to see the rough surf, but they quickly returned to their cars after being pelted by blowing sand.
Nimesh Patel, who was bracing for his first hurricane, decided to board up his ice cream shop after seeing neighboring businesses preparing for the worst.
"We were hoping to come down tonight and view it, but we're boarding it up," Patel said.
In Indian Beach, North Carolina, Alicia Smith has decided to remain at home for her first hurricane. "I'm very nervous, very nervous," she said.
But another Indian Beach resident, Carl Hiltz, said he wasn't worried, noting he had a tree fly through a window during another storm and lived to tell about it.
"They're not that bad, if you're in a good structure," he said.
At a Lowe's home improvement store in Morehead City, North Carolina, assistant manager Jerry Kearney said plywood, tarps, generators and gas cans were in big demand as residents try to get ready for the storm.
"Business is getting good," he said, adding that the store will place trucks in front of its doors to help protect it from storm damage.
Isabel is a strong Category 2 hurricane, but could reach the Category 3 stage before Thursday. A Category 3 hurricane has sustained winds of 111 mph to 130 mph (179 kph to 209 kph).
"There is still some concern there could be a little bit of additional strengthening, and then as it approaches the coast pretty much maintain a steady level at the Category 2 or 3 threshold," said Rappaport.
The Pentagon's National Military Command Center has a team of military disaster assistance experts on standby to coordinate any military aid to state and local governments in the aftermath of the storm.
CNN's Jeff Flock, Bryan Long and Barbara Starr contributed to this report.