[UPDATE] 8-26 7:45pm
AP Science Writer
AP Photo/Bruce Smith
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WASHINGTON (AP) -- Forget the wind and fury. Hurricane Irene's most worrisome weapon is water.
There's just way too much of it: storm surge pushing seawater ashore and heavy rainfall causing flooding. That's not unusual with hurricanes, but with Irene there are a couple of added factors that are making meteorologists nervous.
This massive, slow-moving hurricane is forecast to soak an already drenched Northeast and may come ashore at a time when tides are unusually high, making storm surge even worse - 4 to 11 feet with waves on top, forecasters say.
"Water is the No. 1 killer," retired National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield said Friday afternoon. "That's going to cause the greatest loss of life."
Many deaths can be avoided if people leave the coast and don't drive into flooded areas, he said.
MIT meteorology professor Kerry Emanuel said the flooding from Irene could be worse than the 1938 New England hurricane that killed 564 people.
"I think everybody is confident, unfortunately, that this is going to be a bad event from freshwater flooding," he said.
Forecasters predict Irene will dump 6 to 10 inches of rain in a swath from North Carolina to New England with some areas getting as much as 15 inches of rain. That's partly because the storm is unusually large and is moving fairly slowly - around 15 mph - allowing it to dump more rain over large areas.
"And all of this rain will come in a short period of time, and that could lead to life-threatening flash floods," National Hurricane Center meteorologist John Cangialosi said Friday.
Much of the area on Irene's projected track from Baltimore to New England is already soaked from higher than normal rainfall in the past month. Philadelphia has already had about 13 inches this month, which Cangialosi called "extraordinary."
When a hurricane comes ashore, it brings with it steadily rising seawater, called storm surge. With waves and wind, it pushes inland along rivers, bays and sounds in addition to the beachfront.
National Weather Service storm surge models - using a computer program called SLOSH - show Irene could bring about 4 feet of water into New York City's Battery Park at the tip of Manhattan, Emanuel said. The forecast has Irene heading east of New York; it could be far worse if Irene hits just west of the city, he said.
In some places, the storm surge projections are higher. Water levels may rise as much as 6 to 11 feet on North Carolina's Outer Banks, Cangialosi said.
As Irene makes its way up the coast from the mid-Atlantic to the New Jersey shore, the best projections suggest Irene's center will stay just to the east offshore, he said. So the surge may be slightly lower there, about 4 to 8 feet in the southern Chesapeake Bay area and 3 to 6 feet along the Jersey shore.
But there's another added problem with storm surge: The tides.
Twice a month, tides are higher than normal because the gravitational pull of the moon and sun occur at the same time. That's happening with the new moon on Monday. That means about half a foot difference in low and high tides Sunday, said Stephen Gill, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"It's going to be bad no matter what and it's going to be worse if it hits at high tide," Gill said
And that's not all. An experimental science program shows Irene's unusual size means it would produce much more of a storm surge punch than a hurricane with the same wind speeds, said NOAA atmospheric scientist Mark Powell.
[UPDATE] 8-25 7pm
BUXTON, N.C. (AP) -- A monstrous Hurricane Irene tightened its aim on the Eastern Seaboard on Thursday, threatening 65 million people along a shore-hugging path from North Carolina to New England. One of the nation's top experts called it his "nightmare" scenario.
The Category 3 storm with winds of 115 mph - the threshold for a major hurricane - would be the strongest to strike the East Coast in seven years, and people were already getting out of the way.
Tens of thousands fled North Carolina beach towns, farmers pulled up their crops, and the Navy ordered ships to sea so they could endure the punishing wind and waves in open water.
All eyes were on Irene's projected path, which showed it bringing misery to every city along the I-95 corridor, including Washington, New York and Boston. The former chief of the National Hurricane Center called it one of his three worst possible situations.
"One of my greatest nightmares was having a major hurricane go up the whole Northeast Coast," Max Mayfield, the center's retired director, told The Associated Press.
He said the damage will probably climb into billions of dollars: "This is going to have an impact on the United States economy."
The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said damages could exceed most previous storms because so many people live along the East Coast and property values are high.
"We've got a lot more people that are potentially in the path of this storm," FEMA Director Craig Fugate said in an interview with The Associated Press. "This is one of the largest populations that will be impacted by one storm at one time."
The storm would "have a lot of impact well away from the coastline," he added. "A little bit of damage over big areas with large populations can add up fast."
Irene was massive, with tropical-force winds extending almost twice as far as normal, about the same size as Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005.
"It's not going to be a Katrina, but it's serious," said MIT meteorology professor Kerry Emanuel. "People have to take it seriously."
The governors of North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, New York and New Jersey declared emergencies to free up resources, and authorities all the way to New England urged residents in low-lying areas to gather supplies and learn the way to a safe location.
Irene was expected to come ashore Saturday in North Carolina with 115 mph winds and a storm surge of 5 to 10 feet. It could dump a foot of rain, with as much as 15 inches falling in some places along the coast and around Chesapeake Bay.
Scientists predict Irene will then chug up the coast. Some forecasts showed it taking dead aim at New York City, with its eye passing over Brooklyn and Manhattan before weakening and trudging through New England.
If the storm strikes New York, it will probably be a Category 1 or 2, depending on its exact track, hurricane specialist John Cangialosi said.
Hurricanes are rare in the Northeast because the region's cooler seas tend to weaken storms as they approach, and they have to take a narrow track to strike New York without first hitting other parts of the coast and weakening there.
Still, strong storms have been known to unleash serious damage in an urban environment already surrounded by water.
A September 1821 hurricane raised tides by 13 feet in an hour and flooded all of Manhattan south of Canal Street - an area that now includes the nation's financial capital. An infamous 1938 storm dubbed the Long Island Express came ashore about 75 miles east of the city and then hit New England, killing 700 people and leaving 63,000 homeless.
On Thursday in North Carolina, three coastal counties issued evacuation orders covering more than 200,000 people, including tourists and full-time residents.
Dania Armstrong of New York sat outside a motel smoking a cigarette while she waited for her family to get ready. Armstrong, her daughter and grandchildren had already been ordered off the island of Ocracoke and planned to leave the town of Buxton soon.
"I've been coming down here for 50 years," she said. "I know what's coming. It's time to leave. You don't want to be here when it hits."
John Robeson, an accountant from New Jersey, brought his wife and two children down for a week, but they were cutting the trip short after three days.
"I'm disappointed," he said as he loaded his car. "You wait all year. Talk about it. Make plans for your vacation. And now this. It's a bad break."
Other year-round residents planned to ride it out, despite warnings from authorities that they will be on their own immediately after the storm.
"If you leave, you can't get back for days because of the roads, and you don't know what's going on with your property," said Kathy MacKenzie, who works at Dillon's Corner, a general store in Buxton.
Ollie Jarvis, the store's owner, said he's staying and preparing for the worst. During Hurricane Emily in 1993, his store was flooded with 18 inches of water and sand from a storm surge. Like a spear, the water pushed a T-shirt rack filled with clothes through the ceiling. They still have the high-water mark on a wall near the cash register.
"I can't leave. You have to worry about the stuff you have. You have to save what you can," he said.
Bobby Overbey of Virginia Beach, Va., pulled into a gas station in his Jeep with two surfboards hanging on the back. He planned to stay, despite the evacuation orders.
Usually the waves top out at 2 to 3 feet. On Thursday, he was riding 4- and 5-foot waves.
"You live for this," he said.
Farmers grimly accepted the fate of their crops. Strong winds and widespread flooding could mean billions of dollars in losses for corn, cotton, soybean, tobacco and timber growers. While most farmers have disaster insurance, policies often pay only about 70 percent of actual losses.
Wilson Daughtry owns Alligator River Growers near Engelhard, near Pamlico Sound. Though he is under a mandatory evacuation order, Daughtry and his workers planned to stay to salvage what corn and squash they can.
He said he's lost count of how many times his crops have been wiped out by storms.
"Hurricanes are just part of doing business down here," he said.
In Virginia, officials recalled Hurricane Isabel in 2003, which came ashore as a Category 1, killed more than 30 people and caused more than $1 billion in property damage. The low-lying Hampton Roads region is at high risk of flooding from storm surge and heavy rains. Widespread power outages are likely.
The Navy ordered many of its ships at Norfolk Naval Station out to sea to wait out the storm, including the aircraft carrier USS Dwight Eisenhower, as well as destroyers and submarines.
Gearing up for approaching hurricanes is an almost annual occurrence in coastal North Carolina and Virginia, so planning is extensive and almost second-nature.
Building codes along the Outer Banks require structures to be reinforced to withstand sustained winds of up to 110 mph and gusts up to 130 mph. Houses close to the water must be elevated on pilings to keep them above storm surges, and required setbacks preserve sand dunes to provide additional protection.
It could be a different story as the storm moves up the coast.
In Washington, where residents were rattled by a rare earthquake Tuesday, officials warned people to be prepared for stormy conditions regardless of Irene's exact path and to stay away from the beaches in the region.
The Philadelphia area could get more than a half-foot of rain, accompanied by sustained winds up to 50 mph. Mayor Michael Nutter said it could be the worst storm in at least 50 years. August has already been one of the rainiest months in city history.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie asked all visitors to the shore to get out by midday Friday. He said Irene was poised to be a "serious, significant event," with flooding a threat across the entire state. A mandatory evacuation was ordered for Cape May County.
In a normal hurricane, tropical storm-force winds extend about 150 miles from the eye. Irene's winds extend nearly 250 miles.
Another worry is that the ground is already saturated in the Northeast after a wet spring and summer. That means trees and power lines will be more vulnerable to winds, like during Hurricane Isabel, Mayfield said.
New York is especially susceptible with its large subway network and the waterways around the city, Mayfield said.
"In many ways, a Category 2 or stronger storm hitting New York is a lot of people's nightmare," said Susan Cutter, director of the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina.
High water in the harbor and rivers, along with a high tide at the end of the month because of the new moon, could cause serious flooding. New York's three airports are close to the water, putting them at risk, too, Cutter said.
And if the storm shifts further to the west, placing New York City on the stronger right-hand quadrant of the storm, "that is what's going to push this wall of water into the bays and the Hudson River."
[UPDATE] 8-24 11pm
Stay or go? Officials debate Hurricane Irene
HATTERAS, N.C. - Hurricane Irene could hit anywhere from North Carolina to New York this weekend, leaving officials in the path of uncertainty to make a delicate decision. Should they tell tourists to leave during one of the last weeks of the multibillion-dollar summer season?
Most were in a wait-and-see mode, holding out to get every dime before the storm's path crystalizes. North Carolina's governor told reporters not to scare people away.
"You will never endanger your tourists, but you also don't want to over inflate the sense of urgency about the storm. And so let's just hang on," North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue said Wednesday. At the same time she warned to "prepare for the worst."
In the Bahamas, tourists cut their vacations short and caught the last flights out before the airport was closed. Those who remained behind with locals prepared for a rough night of violent winds and a dangerous storm surge that threatened to punish the low-lying chain of islands. Irene has already hit Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, causing landslides and flooding homes. One woman was killed.
On the Outer Banks of North Carolina, some tourists heeded evacuation orders for a tiny barrier island as Irene strengthened to a Category 3 storm, with winds of 120 mph.
"We jam-packed as much fun as we could into the remainder of Tuesday," said Jessica Stanton Tice of Charleston, W.Va. She left Ocracoke Island on an early-morning ferry with her husband and toddler.
"We're still going to give North Carolina our vacation business, but we're going to Asheville" in the mountains, she said.
Officials said Irene could cause flooding, power outages or worse as far north as Maine, even if the eye of the storm stays offshore. Hurricane-force winds were expected 50 miles from the center of the storm.
Predicting the path of such a huge storm can be tricky, but the National Hurricane Center uses computer models to come up with a "cone of uncertainty," a three-day forecast that has become remarkably accurate in recent years. Forecasters are still about a day away from the cone reaching the East Coast. A system currently over the Great Lakes will play a large role in determining if Irene is pushed farther to the east in the next three or four days.
[UPDATE] 8-24 7:00 pm
Hurricane Irene menaces smaller islands of Bahamas
By BEN FOX
NASSAU, Bahamas (AP) -- A large and powerful Hurricane Irene was roaring its way Wednesday across the entire Bahamas archipelago, knocking down trees and tearing up roofs and posing the most severe threat to the smallest and least populated islands, officials said.
Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham said there have been no major injuries or deaths according to preliminary reports he has been receiving from throughout the widely scattered islands. But he added that they would not know the full extent of damage from the Category 3 storm until it is clear of the country on Friday.
Ingraham said the latest storm data seemed to indicate that lightly populated Cat Island was in particular danger because the storm was expected to pass over the entire length of the island. Forecasters said New Providence, the largest and most populated island, would see tropical-storm-force winds for more than 12 hours.
This was only the third time since 1866 that a hurricane has gone across the entire length of the island chain, Ingraham said, and the country was bracing for extensive damage to buildings and infrastructure. But the prime minister predicted few casualties overall.
"As a general statement we do a fair job of managing hurricanes so personal injuries, we hope, will not be substantial," he said in an interview with The Associated Press at an emergency operations center in Nassau. "Property damage, vegetation, public infrastructure, yes, but as a general statement we would hope that personal injuries would be minimized."
The latest forecast was good news for Nassau, which is on New Providence, and is home to more than 200,000 and is a major tourist destination. Capt. Stephen Russell, director of the National Emergency Management Agency, told AP that the capital should only see "the fringes of tropical storm winds," according to tracking data.
"That should go very well for us unless the system alters its course during the next 24 hours," Russell said.
Authorities set up emergency shelters throughout the country but most locals were expected to stay in their own homes or with friends and family while visitors stayed in the handful of hotels that remained open for what was expected to be a rough next few days.
As darkness fell in the capital, and the first strong winds and rain began to lash the city, the streets were largely deserted. Earlier, the capital buzzed with last-minute preparations as people gathered what last-minute supplies were still available and shop owners boarded up their windows. Nassau, which surrounded by sparkling greenish-blue ocean, is known to flood even in heavy rain so the storm surge was expected to make many roads impassable, especially in the colonial downtown.
Many visitors weren't waiting around to find out what would happen and fled the country, waiting in long lines to catch planes before the airport closed. Some tourists had no choice but to leave since smaller hotels abruptly closed and larger ones were booked up with Bahamian residents looking for a place to ride out the storm. Others flying out simply didn't want to take their chances with what could be a major storm.
"I've been through one hurricane and I don't want to see another," said Susan Hooper of Paris, Illinois, who was cutting short a trip with her husband, Marvin, to celebrate their 23rd wedding anniversary. "My main concern is what if something happened to the airport. How would I get home?"
Maureen Fallon, a 39-year-old consultant from Annapolis, Maryland, was forced to abandon a trip with six friends through the Bahamas archipelago on a 47-foot (14-meter) catamaran. They tried rerouting the boat as the storm developed but gave up less than halfway through after the U.S. State Department issued a warning to travelers.
"I'm pretty bummed," she said. "But there was just no way. It was way too dangerous."
Meghan Stark, traveling with her mother and 5-year-old son, arrived at the airport exhausted and frustrated after their hotel closed and told all guests to leave, less than 24 hours after first telling them the storm was not likely to pose a major threat to Nassau.
Stark, a college student from Baldwin, New York, arrived in the Bahamas on Monday for a weeklong stay that had already been delayed after a storm in New York postponed their flight for two days. Staff at their hotel, Sandyport Beaches Resort, initially reassured them that the storm wasn't a major danger.
"We had asked them when we got here about the storm and they said, 'Don't worry about it, these things blow over,'" she said.
Less than 24 hours later, Stark and her family found their room keys not working and the staff telling them to clear out. They spent the night racking up an expensive cell phone bill trying to book a flight out. At one point, they considered and rejected the option of staying in a refuge being set up in one of the larger hotels. On Wednesday morning, they were forced to leave early.
Irene was centered about 215 miles (345 kilometers) southeast of Nassau with winds of 120 mph (195 kph).
As the storm crossed southern Mayaguana Island, it uprooted trees, blew shingles off roofs and knocked several lampposts down, leaving the entire island without power, said Police Inspector Vernon Rahming.
"It's moving away from us, and now we can start to do some cleaning up," he said.
On Crooked Island, Irene did similar damage, tearing the roof off of a high school, local administrator Bernard Ferguson said.
"We have been unable to assess it fully, but from a quick drive through we have quite an extensive bit of damage," he said.
Irene is expected to become a Category 4 hurricane by Thursday as it passes over the northwestern Bahamas en route to the eastern U.S. coast, said the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida.
Irene barreled through the Turks and Caicos Islands late Tuesday as a Category 1 hurricane, blowing off some roofs and downing power lines, said Emily Malcolm, district commissioner for South Caicos island.
No deaths or injuries have been reported, she said.
Puerto Rico, which also was hit by Irene, is still struggling with heavy flooding that has stranded motorists and affected several neighborhoods. Dozens of landslides have been reported and 765 people remain in shelters, Gov. Luis Fortuno told a news conference Wednesday, two days after he declared a state of emergency.
On Tuesday, a 62-year-old woman died at a hospital after trying to cross a swollen river in her car near the capital of San Juan, police said.
Tens of thousands of people still remain without power in the U.S. Caribbean territory.
In the Dominican Republic, flooding has stranded at least 85 communities and nearly 32,000 people have been evacuated. Emergency crews equipped with lifejackets and ropes on Wednesday rescued families whose homes were being flooded by a swollen river in the city of San Cristobal, just west of the capital.
Far to the south in Cuba, the storm sent waves crashing over the seawall in the extreme eastern city of Baracoa, causing ankle-deep flooding and damaging some sidewalks.
Governments across the Caribbean are monitoring another cluster of thunderstorms that have a 60 percent chance of becoming a tropical cyclone and are expected to arrive this weekend.
By MARTHA WAGGONER
AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana
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HATTERAS, N.C. (AP) -- Tourists began evacuating from a tiny barrier island off North Carolina on Wednesday as Hurricane Irene strengthened to a major Category 3 storm over the Bahamas with the East Coast in its sights.
So far, things were going smoothly, said Tommy Hutcherson, owner of the Ocracoke Variety Store on Ocracoke Island. Cars had lined up at gas pumps to top off before leaving ahead of Irene, which had winds near 120 mph (193 kph) as of Wednesday afternoon. Irene is expected to get stronger over warm ocean waters and could become a Category 4 storm with winds of at least 131 mph (211 kph) by Thursday.
The evacuation was a test of whether people in the crosshairs of the first major hurricane along the East Coast in years would heed orders to get out of the way. As Irene churned in the Caribbean, tourists scurried from hotels in the Bahamian capital of Nassau to catch flights off the island before the airport's expected afternoon closure. Officials as far north as Rhode Island and Massachusetts in the U.S. also were getting ready for Irene.
The first ferry to leave Ocracoke Island in North Carolina arrived just before 5:30 a.m. in nearby Hatteras with around a dozen cars on board.
The 16-mile-long barrier island is accessible only by boats that can carry no more than 50 cars at a time. It is home to about 800 year-round residents and a tourist population that swells into the thousands when vacationers rent rooms and cottages. Tourists were told to evacuate Wednesday. Island residents were told to get out on Thursday.
It wasn't clear how many people on the first arriving ferry Wednesday morning were tourists, but the first two cars to drive off had New York and New Jersey plates.
Getting off the next ferry about an hour later was a family that included newlywed Jennifer Zaharek, 23, of Torrington, Conn. She and her husband, Andrew, were married Monday and planned to spend their honeymoon on the island.
"We just got to spend one day on the beach and then we went to bed early to get up for the evacuation," she said.
State workers questioned people who tried taking the ferry to the island and turned a few cars around. In addition to the ferry line to Hatteras, there were two other ferry lines that went to and from the island.
Federal officials have warned Irene could cause flooding, power outages or worse all along the East Coast as far north as Maine, even if it stays offshore. The projected path has gradually shifted to the east, and Irene could make landfall anywhere from South Carolina to Massachusetts over the weekend.
As of 2 p.m. EDT Wednesday, Irene was centered about 250 miles (402 kilometers) southeast of Nassau in the Bahamas and was moving northwest near 12 mph (19 kph).
Speaking Wednesday on ABC's "Good Morning America," Craig Fugate, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said people as far north as New England should be ready for the storm. When asked about concerns preparing the Northeast for a hurricane, which is uncommon in that part of the country, Fugate cited Tuesday's earthquake that rattled the East Coast.
"It's a reminder that we don't always get to pick the next disaster," Fugate said.
Ocracoke is part of North Carolina's Outer Banks, a roughly 200-mile stretch of fragile barrier islands off the state's coast. Pristine beaches and wild mustangs attract thousands of tourists each year. Aside from Ocracoke, the other islands are accessible by bridges to the mainland and ferries. The limited access can make the evacuation particularly tense. Officials in counties covering the rest of the Outer Banks were to decide later Wednesday or Thursday whether to evacuate.
All the barrier islands have the geographic weakness of jutting out into the Atlantic like the side-view mirror of a car, a location that's frequently been in the path of destructive storms over the decades. In 1999, Hurricane Floyd made landfall as a Category 2 storm and caused a storm surge that wiped out scores of houses and other properties on the Outer Banks.
Irene had already wrought destruction across the Caribbean, giving a glimpse of what the storm might bring to the Eastern Seaboard. In Puerto Rico, tens of thousands were without power, and one woman died after trying to cross a swollen river in her car. Thousands were evacuated because of flooding in the Dominican Republic. In Cuba, the storm sent waves crashing over a seawall in Baracoa, causing ankle-deep flooding in parts and damaging some sidewalks.
Hurricane conditions were already present in the southeastern Bahamas, forecasters said. The capital of Nassau buzzed with preparations Wednesday, as the government and some resorts set up emergency shelters. Many visitors scrambled to get off the island, waiting in long lines to catch planes before the airport closed.
"I've been through one hurricane and I don't want to see another," said Susan Hooper of Paris, Illinois, who was cutting short a trip with her husband, Marvin, to celebrate their 23rd wedding anniversary.
It's been more than seven years since a major hurricane, considered a Category 3 with winds of at least 111 mph (179 kph), hit the East Coast. Hurricane Jeanne came ashore on Florida's east coast in 2004.
People were keeping an eye on the storm farther north. At the Breakers Resort Inn in Virginia Beach, Va., manager Jimmy Capps said some customers have canceled, but he's urging most to wait until Thursday, when the storm's path will be more certain than it is now. He said the 56-room inn is still about 80 percent booked for the weekend.
In Massachusetts, country music star Kenny Chesney bumped a concert ahead two days to miss Irene, and state officials were making sure communications systems were working and sandbags were stocked. In Rhode Island, officials stockpiled sandbags and cleared storm drains to prepare for possible flooding.
Tourist enclaves in Georgia and South Carolina, though, were not expecting as much of a hit. Managers at Georgia's Cumberland and Sapelo islands said they planned to remain open as Irene approaches. In South Carolina, Gov. Nikki Haley said she didn't anticipate evacuations.
"What we can say is tourists can comfortably stay on the coast. If something changes, we'll have another news conference," she said.
North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue urged coastal residents to be prepared and fill up their gas tanks, collect their prescription drugs and have cash in case the region is without power or other basics. Hurricane kits also should include water, canned food and other supplies.
Still, Perdue tried not to discourage vacationers from visiting North Carolina's coast, saying at this point the state's southern beaches would avoid the brunt of the storm and predicted Irene would pass the state by Sunday morning - leaving intact the week leading up to the Labor Day holiday.
Perdue defended comments she made Tuesday asking the media not to scare away tourists and urging vacationers to keep visiting North Carolina.
"You will never endanger your tourists, but you also don't want to overinflate the sense of urgency about the storm. And so let's just hang on," she said
Cheryl Tuverson of Drexel Hill, Pa., was staying on Hatteras Island with a large group, including her two children, and had no plans to hang on. She recalled staying through a storm during a previous visit to the area and said she wouldn't do it again.
"This time, we'll leave," she said. "We're supposed to leave Saturday, but we'll leave Friday."
[UPDATE] 8-24 7:55am -
Hurricane Irene becomes a category three hurricane, according to the National Hurricane Center.
[UPDATE] 8-23 6:45pm
MIAMI (AP) -- Officials and residents in the Carolinas stocked up on supplies, dusted off evacuation plans and readied for the worst as Irene, the first hurricane to threaten the U.S. in three years, churned over tropical waters Tuesday after cutting a destructive path through the Caribbean.
Federal officials warned the storm could flood streets and knock down power lines as far north as New England. Irene lost some of its punch Tuesday afternoon and was downgraded to a Category 1 hurricane as it lashed the Turks and Caicos Islands, but the storm remains likely to regain strength and become a major hurricane before making a U.S. landfall.
The hurricane has raked the Caribbean and could cause serious problems along the entire Eastern Seaboard, Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Craig Fugate said Tuesday during a conference call with reporters. Fugate urged people not to become complacent, even though the forecast is still uncertain and the storm may be days from hitting the U.S.
"We need to remind people, hurricanes are not just a Southern thing. This could be the Mid-Atlantic and the northeast coast," Fugate said. "We've got a lot of time for people to get ready, but we don't have forever."
Officials on North Carolina's Ocracoke Island were taking no chances. Tourists were ordered to evacuate Wednesday, while residents were told to be off the island by Thursday, said Tommy Hutcherson, who serves on the local board that issues such orders.
Hutcherson, who also owns the Ocracoke Variety Store, said authorities have to issue such orders early because of the limited capacity of the ferries. Still, that doesn't mean everyone will leave.
"I'll be here," said Hutcherson, a 29-year resident who has ridden out numerous past storms. "A lot of the locals will choose to stay."
The barrier island is only accessible by boat. It is 16 miles long and mostly undeveloped, with a town at the southern tip.
Caitlin Blue, who works at the Kure Beach Fishing Pier, said Tuesday employees were preparing to board up the windows.
"That's really all you can do," said Blue, 17. "Everybody's a little apprehensive, especially the owner of the pier. This one is supposed to come right down on us."
The Kure pier has been rebuilt twice after being destroyed by hurricanes - Hazel in 1954 and the double hit in 1996 from Bertha and Fran.
Many people already have begun stocking up on essentials such as bottled water, gasoline and plywood for boarding up windows. But on North Carolina's Wrightsville Beach, a popular tourist destination, only a few wispy clouds dotted the sky on a 90-degree day. Bronzed sunbathers strolled around in bathing suits and towels, and traffic was heavy - most cars were headed toward the beach, not away from it.
Most in the area weren't panicking - but they were getting ready. Irene was the main topic of conversation at Craft American Hardware, not far from Wrightsville Beach, where people were trooping all day to pick up emergency supplies for the storm.
"Water, batteries, flashlights and now I'm going to get my grocery shopping done," said Sally Godwin, carrying two large jugs of fresh water out of the store with her. "I live at the beach, and they always evacuate it the day before. I have to make sure all my little stuff's taken care of."
It's possible Irene will make landfall over the North Carolina coast sometime Saturday, then move to the north near the Chesapeake Bay. However, because such projections can be uncertain, it's also possible Irene could straddle the coast.
Fugate and National Hurricane Center director Bill Read said Irene could cause problems even over open water. New England is particularly vulnerable to heavy rains because the soil is already saturated from summer storms, which could raise the threat of flash flooding.
If Irene does move into the Mid-Atlantic area, it could threaten plans for dedicating a memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. Fugate said officials were discussing whether to hold Sunday's dedication ceremony. Tens of thousands are expected to attend the event at the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Irene had already wrought destruction across the Caribbean, giving a glimpse of what the storm might bring to the Eastern Seaboard. In Puerto Rico, more than a million people were without power, and President Barack Obama declared an emergency there. At least hundreds were displaced by flooding in the Dominican Republic, forced to take refuge in schools and churches.
Irene was making its way toward the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands on Tuesday. The prime minister of the Bahamas pleaded with islanders in low-lying areas to seek higher ground, and also urged people to stock up on water, food, flashlights, first aid kits and other supplies. On the Turks and Caicos Islands, residents were putting up hurricane shutters and tourists were retreating to their hotels.
On Tuesday afternoon, Irene was about 50 miles (80 kilometers) south-southwest of Grand Turk Island, moving west-northwest at 9 mph (15 kph). Its maximum sustained winds were at 90 mph (145 kph).
In South Carolina, emergency agencies went on alert for what could be the first hurricane to hit there in seven years.
"This is potentially a very serious hurricane," longtime Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. said. He led Charleston's recovery from the massive destruction of Hurricane Hugo's 135 mph winds and waves back in 1989.
It's been more than a century since Georgia has taken a direct hit from a Category 3 storm or greater. That was in 1893, and the last hurricane to make landfall along the state's 100-mile coast was David, which caused only minor damage when it struck in 1979.
On Tybee Island, Ga., 18 miles east of Savannah, officials planned to be on the lookout for fierce rip currents and heavy surf from Irene. Mayor Jason Buelterman said it was possible lifeguards might close the water to swimmers and surfers. On Jekyll Island, about 60 miles south of Savannah, officials were watching forecasts in case measures were needed to protect historic buildings. Among them are sprawling "cottages" built by the likes of William Rockefeller and other wealthy industrialists in the late 1800s.
If Irene makes it as a major storm to New England, Read drew comparisons to a huge 1938 hurricane that also approached from the South and killed 682 people.
"We're very concerned about what's going to happen in New England," Read said.
Irene could bring much-needed relief to a fire blazing in the Great Dismal Swamp on the North Carolina-Virginia line, however. If the storm stays on its current track, it could soak the smoldering fire that's consumed more than 9 square miles of swamp in both states.
[UPDATE] 8-23 10:45am
Hurricane Irene is approaching the Turks and Caicos Islands according to the National Hurricane Center.
By EZEQUIEL ABIU LOPEZ
A rapidly strengthening Hurricane Irene roared off the Dominican Republic's resort-dotted northern coast on Monday, whipping up high waves and torrential downpours on a track that could see it reach the U.S. Southeast as a major storm by the end of the week.
NAGUA, Dominican Republic (AP) -- A rapidly strengthening Hurricane Irene roared off the Dominican Republic's resort-dotted northern coast on Monday, whipping up high waves and torrential downpours on a track that could see it reach the U.S. Southeast as a major storm by the end of the week.
Irene grew into a Category 2 hurricane late Monday and the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said it could reach Category 3 as early as Tuesday and possibly become a monster Category 4 storm within 72 hours.
"We didn't anticipate it gaining this much strength this early," said center meteorologist Chris Landsea, adding that the ocean's warm temperatures and the current atmosphere is "very conducive" to energizing storms.
Forecasters said it could still be that strong when it slams into the United States, possibly landing in Florida, Georgia, or South Carolina. Irene is expected to rake the Turks and Caicos and the Bahamas on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Earlier, the storm slashed directly across Puerto Rico, tearing up trees and knocking out power to more than a million people, then headed out to sea north of the Dominican Republic, where the powerful storm's outer bands were buffeting the north coast with dangerous sea surge and downpours.
Late Monday, the storm's downpours forced more than 1,000 Dominicans to evacuate their homes, with some families in low-lying areas fleeing to churches and public buildings. Others hunkered down inside their homes as the winds howled outside and heavy waves pounded the piers and washed onto coastal boulevards.
"We are going to see if the zinc roof resists" the storm, Fidelina Magdaleno, 60, said in her house in Nagua while a chicken dinner was prepared inside without electricity.
Residents earlier had jammed supermarkets and gas stations to get supplies for the storm. Schools were closed and emergency services were placed on alert. At least 33 flights were canceled at Santo Domingo's international airport.
The first hurricane of the Atlantic season was a large system that could cause dangerous mudslides and floods in Dominican Republic, the hurricane center said. It was not expected to make a direct hit on neighboring Haiti, though that country could still see heavy rain from the storm.
Dominican officials said the government had emergency food available for 1.5 million people if needed and the country's military and public safety brigades were on alert.
"We have taken all precautions," presidential spokesman Rafael Nunez said.
Irene is forecast to grow into a Category 3 hurricane late Tuesday as it moves over the warm waters of the Turks and Caicos Islands and the southeastern Bahamas, and could maintain that strength as it nears the U.S. coast.
Florida residents were urged to ensure they had batteries, drinking water, food and other supplies.
"We must prepare for the worst and hope for the best," said Joe Martinez, chairman of the Miami-Dade County Commission.
Officials in Charleston, South Carolina, also warned residents to monitor Irene closely. It has been six years since a hurricane hit the South Carolina coast, said Joe Farmer of the state Emergency Management Division.
Police and civil protection officials in the Dominican Republic made their way along the beaches of the country's northern coast to warn people away from the surging sea. Resorts pulled up the umbrellas and lounge chairs as the storm made its way toward the country. At the Wyndham Tangerine, a hotel in the resort area of Sosua and Cabarete, the staff converted a conference room into a temporary storm refuge for 300 people, said deputy general manager Karen Gonzalez.
Jose Manuel Mendez, director of the country's Emergency Operations Center, said that only about 135 people were in public shelters, but that hundreds of others were staying with friends and family to avoid the storm, which was expected to drop as much as 14 inches (35 centimeters) at higher elevations.
The 100 tourists who booked an ocean-view room at a Puerto Plata resort were moved to another building on Monday for their safety, said Medardo Carrera, manager for VH Gran Ventana Beach Resort, and the hotel ordered its 450 guests to stay inside their rooms Monday night.
At the nearby Casa Colonial Beach & Spa, several tourists packed their bags and fled ahead of the storm, hoping to catch one of the last flights for Miami, said concierge Zadaliy Placido.
The hurricane earlier cut power to more than a million people in Puerto Rico. There were no reports of deaths or major injuries, but Gov. Luis Fortuno declared a state of emergency and urged people to stay indoors to avoid downed power lines, flooded streets and other hazards.
During the storm's march through the region, Academy Award-winning actress Kate Winslet and others escaped uninjured when a blaze gutted Richard Branson's home on his private isle in the British Virgin Islands.
According to Branson, about 20 people, including Winslet and her young children, were staying in his eight-bedroom Great House on Necker Island when the fire broke out around 4 a.m. amid the storm's lightning and high winds.
By late Monday night, Irene was centered about 100 miles (155 kms) east of Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic with maximum sustained winds of 100 mph (155 kph). Hurricane specialist John Cangialosi said it could become a Category 4 storm within 72 hours.
In the overseas U.K. territory of the Turks and Caicos Islands, located in the Atlantic between the Bahamas and Haiti, there was a steady stream of customers buying plywood and nails at hardware stores, while others readied storm shutters and emergency kits at home.
On the island of Grand Turk, where Hurricane Ike damaged roughly 95 percent of homes in September 2008, Peter White was taking no chances as the sparsely populated territory was slowly covered by iron-gray skies on Monday afternoon.
"We've loaded up on water and rations and our shutters are ready to go up. Bad memories of Ike are a big reason why we get so prepared now," White said from the Breezy Brea area along the eastern coast of Grand Turk.
In the Bahamian capital of Nassau, Henry Vera, of Long Island, New York, said the approaching hurricane will not cause him to cut his vacation short in Cable Beach, where he and his girlfriend are booked at a hotel until Sunday.
"I've never been in a hurricane before so I have no idea what to expect," the 29-year-old Mineola resident said. "But I'm not going to leave early, I still have a week off work and I'm still on vacation."
But Marcia Perry, a 36-year-old marketing executive from Hershey, Pennsylvania, who traveled to Nassau's Atlantis Resort with her daughter and her friends said she will go home early if the storm appears to be a major threat.
"We don't need to pay a lot of money to be worried and scared, so we will wait until tomorrow to make a decision," she said on Monday.
In Puerto Rico, 600 crews spread out across the island to repair toppled light poles, and the majority of customers were expected to have power by late Monday, power company spokesman Carlos Monroig said. Schools, most government offices and many businesses remained closed. Flights resumed at the international airport in San Juan by midmorning.
The storm entered through the southeast coastal town of Humacao, but emergency management regional director Orlando Diaz said the damage seemed to be less than he feared.
"We thought things were going to be a bit more tragic," he said. "I was surprised that we didn't see the amount of rain I expected."
Associated Press writers Megan Reynolds in Nassau, Bahamas, Danica Coto and Ben Fox in San Juan, Puerto Rico, David McFadden in Kingston, Jamaica, Kelli Kennedy in Miami and Bruce Smith in Charleston, South Carolina contributed to this report.
[UPDATE] 8-22 - MIAMI (AP) --
As Hurricane Irene pummeled Puerto Rico, South Florida emergency officials directed staff to halt routine operations and switch strictly to storm mode Monday.
Palm Beach County officials are working their way through a
three-page checklist assessing communications and satellites.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center's current forecast has Irene
hitting southern Florida as a hurricane by Thursday. By Monday
morning, Hurricane Irene was moving west-northwest away from Puerto Rico at roughly 14 mph (22 kph) with maximum sustained winds near 75 mph (120 kph).
If Irene passes over land, the storm could weaken more than
Irene pummeled Puerto Rico overnight, flooding the streets and
leaving more than a million without power. There were no immediate
reports of any deaths.
[UPDATE] 8-22 8:30am - SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) --
Puerto Ricans awoke to flooded and debris-strewn streets today following the overnight passage of Hurricane Irene, which next took aim at the Dominican Republic on a path that could take the storm to the U.S. by the end of the week.
Irene, the first hurricane of the Atlantic hurricane season, is
expected to affect Florida later in the week and could clip Georgia
and the Carolinas.
In San Juan, dozens of people sought emergency shelter ahead of
Irene, which is expected to dump up to 10 inches of rain in Puerto
Rico. People also took shelter on the outlying islands of Culebra
The U.S. National Hurricane Center's current forecast has Irene
hitting southern Florida as a hurricane by Thursday.
MIAMI (AP) --
Hurricane Irene has formed and is moving over Puerto Rico with its projected path expected to take it toward the U.S. East Coast later this week.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said early Monday
that Irene has maximum sustained winds of 75 mph (120 kph). It's
centered about 25 miles (40 kilometers) west of San Juan, Puerto
Rico, and is moving west-northwest near 12 mph (19 kph).
The strengthening storm is next headed for Hispaniola, the
island shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Nearly 600,000
people in Haiti still live without shelter after last year's
In the U.S., Irene is expected to affect Florida and could clip
Georgia and the Carolinas.
Irene is the first hurricane of the Atlantic hurricane season.