By EZEQUIEL ABIU LOPEZ
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.