Thousands of residents and tourists were ordered to evacuate two North Carolina islands today as Hurricane Felix headed toward the U.S. mainland after pounding Bermuda. Hurricane warnings were posted from South Carolina to Virginia.

``A storm like this will put the fear of God in people,'' said Bermuda tourist Joe Denton, 84, of New York City. Felix caused more than a half-million dollars worth of damage to the hotel where he was staying.

Pounding surf thundered along the East Coast, forcing lifeguards to close many beaches to swimmers as far north as New York. Three people had died in the surf since the weekend. But there were no reports of injuries in Bermuda.

The heart of the unusually wide storm was still 460 miles east-southeast of Cape Hatteras, N.C., at 11 a.m. today, moving toward the west-northwest at about 14 mph. And it still wasn't clear if or when Felix would make landfall.

The hurricane warning area extended from north of Little River Inlet in South Carolina to Chincoteague, Va. A hurricane watch _ a less severe form of advisory than a warning _ was in effect in coastal areas of South Carolina, Virginia and Delaware on either side of the warning area.

``This storm is very big and widespread,'' said Tom Ditt, North Carolina state emergency management spokesman. ``It's going to hit everywhere along the coast in some degree.''

Bermuda was forced to indefinitely postpone today's scheduled referendum on independence from Britain because of power outages and streets blocked by fallen trees.

Residents and visitors on North Carolina's coastal Ocracoke and Hatteras islands, part of the Outer Banks chain, were ordered to evacuate this morning.

Ocracoke is accessible only by boat, and ferry runs are halted when the sea gets too rough. As early as Monday, water had washed over Hatteras' main highway at Rodanthe at high tide.

``By law, we cannot physically force anyone to leave,'' Dare County spokesman Charlie Hartig said. ``We hope the word `mandatory' connotes a certain severity to what we're talking about.''

Hartig said it could take several hours to evacuate some 10,000 people from Hatteras if the evacuation goes smoothly. Phone service to the islands was erratic this morning because of the volume of calls.

``Right now, it's sunny and nice,'' said Dawn Peterson, who works at a restaurant in Avon, just north of Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.

She said gas stations ``are packed with tourists getting ready to leave. I think a lot of people left yesterday, too, because we didn't do much business.''

Farther north, Currituck County officials were concerned about residents of the tiny island community of Corova, who would have to use a beach access road to get to Corolla before getting on a main evacuation route.

``It's a bouncing ball right now, you don't know where it's going to hit,'' said county spokesman John Mulvey.

The storm was packing wind blowing at a steady 80 and hurricane-force wind, of at least 74 mph, extended up to 140 miles out from the center, the National Weather Service said. Tropical storm-force wind extended up to 290 miles out.

Riptides caused by Felix had killed two people and left one missing in North Carolina, and one person drowned in rough surf in Virginia. Surfers flocked to New Jersey beaches as waves ranged from 6 to 12 feet.

In Virginia, navy warships from submarines to aircraft carriers began streaming out of the Norfolk Naval Base in Virginia early today to ride out the hurricane at sea and avoid being battered into piers and each other.

Thousands of Bermuda residents were without electricity. Only one of two local radio stations was operating, and cable television was knocked out for a short time. A causeway linking Bermuda to its airport was washed out, police Sgt. Andrea Browne said.

``It's chaos!'' said Evelyn Carreiro, front desk supervisor at the Hamilton Princess Hotel, where rooms quickly filled with coastal residents.

``The businesses are closed, the ferries shut down, the buses aren't working, and the cable TV is out,'' said Mike Norton, 38, a tourist from Pittsburgh. ``The only things running are the cabs, and there's no place to go.''

In 1987, Hurricane Emily's 110 mph wind caused an estimated $35 million damage in Bermuda in just 30 minutes and left some of its 53,000 residents without electricity for weeks. The storm later brushed the Outer Banks, doing extensive damage in isolated areas.