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Updated from 12:10 p.m. EDT with Gov. Cuomo's state of emergency and Irene's shift



) -- New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency Thursday afternoon as Hurricane Irene took a sudden shift westward, putting it on a projected path to possibly roll directly over New York City by the end of the weekend.

The storm caught the edge of a large high-pressure system over the Atlantic ocean before noon on Thursday, said a spokesman for the National Weather Service. He added that the hurricane could ride that system to a low pressure trough in North Carolina, which could then whip the storm system north towards New York.

Hurricane Irene continued to strengthen on Thursday.

"This is a very large storm... so its impact will be felt far and wide," NWS Spokesman Chris Vaccaro told


. "The storm size will affect a huge area."

The slight shift puts the entire Interstate 95 N.E. Corridor in the impact zone -- which could include anything from heavy storms to high winds to storm surge.

Irene pounded the Northwestern Bahamas on Thursday with 115 mph sustained winds as the storm system inched toward the Eastern seaboard of the U.S.

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Irene is a Category 3 hurricane and is expected to strengthen in the Atlantic Ocean through Thursday night, the NWS said.

Current forecasts show that

Irene could make landfall sometime late Friday night or early Saturday morning, and could hit the District of Columbia by Sunday morning. The weather service also predicted tropical storm conditions in the New York metropolitan area all day Sunday.

If Irene was to reach land on the East Coast, it would become the first hurricane to hit the United States since Hurricane Ike in 2008. Ike had reached Category 4 status, but landed near Galveston, Texas, in September as a Category 1. It caused more than $20 billion in damage.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg cautioned New Yorkers against the possible effects of the storm, which he said could possibly reach the city as strong as a Category 2.

"If the worst scenario is going to happen this weekend, we will activate ... the possibility of evacuating New Yorkers who live in low-lying areas that could be affected by such storm surges," Bloomberg said.

Irene lumbered along at a mere 13 mph on Thursday, but thousands of residents and tourists began to evacuate coasts from North Carolina to Virginia to elude the potentially devastating storm.

According to the NWS history books, a total of 12 hurricanes have hit New York State since records began in 1851. Five of those were "major" hurricanes (all were Category 3).

The last hurricane to hit the state was Hurricane Gloria in 1985, which made landfall at Long Island as a Category 3.

--Written by Joe Deaux in New York.

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