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WILMINGTON, North Carolina (Reuters) - The United States urged 55 million people on its eastern seaboard to prepare for Hurricane Irene on Friday as the powerful storm packing high winds and heavy rain bore down on the North Carolina coast.

Tens of thousands of coastal residents were evacuating, starting in eastern North Carolina, where Irene is due to make its first U.S. landfall on Saturday, although wind gusts and downpours will be felt there from Friday.

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