MIAMI, Aug. 24 (UPI) — Hurricane Irene, pumped up to a Category 3 storm, pounded the Bahamas Wednesday and gathered strength as it headed toward the U.S. East Coast, forecasters said.
The U.S. Hurricane Center in Miami said in its 2 p.m. EDT advisory Irene’s eye was passing over Crooked Island, and was about 65 miles southeast of Long Island, Bahamas, and about 250 miles southeast of Nassau. Irene was producing maximum sustained winds of 120 mph with higher gusts as it headed to the northwest at about 12 mph, the forecasters said.
Irene, which has hurricane-force winds extending 50 miles from its center and tropical storm gales 205 miles out, could reach Category 4 status Thursday, forecasters said.
A hurricane warning was posted for the southeastern, central and northwestern Bahamas while the government of the Bahamas has downgraded a warning for the Turks and Caicos Islands to a tropical storm warning, the hurricane center said.
United Nations officials in New York said Irene’s heavy rains were causing flooding and agricultural damage in Haiti, a Caribbean island nation always vulnerable to storms because it lacks a tree canopy. U.N. officials said more than 160 evacuation sites had been opened and aid supplies have been mobilized in anticipation that Haitians will be displaced. However, no major losses or damage had been reported.
Haiti is still recovering from a 2010 earthquake and last November’s Hurricane Tomas.
Forecasters said Irene was expected to shift gradually toward the northwest through Wednesday night and then veer northward Thursday.
Irene could produce 6-12 inches of rain in the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands, the center said. The storm also could produce 1-3 inches of additional rain across Puerto Rico and Hispaniola, with isolated storm amounts of 15 inches possible, the center said. The rains could produce life-threatening flash floods and mudslides in areas of steep terrain.
Hurricane- or tropical storm-force winds and storm surges also were forecast in the warning area.
In the Bahamas, the storm surge could hit 11 feet, posing a more deadly threat than hurricane-force winds and drenching rain, The Miami Herald reported.
“It’s always a big concern,” said Geoffrey Greene, senior meteorologist with the Bahamas Department of Meteorology. “We are a flat island nation. We know we’re going to get some flooding.”
Whether Irene would make landfall in the United States was uncertain, forecasters said. The hurricane center reported “high confidence” in a scenario in which Irene’s core would be about 200 miles off the Florida coast for the next few days, the Herald said. After that, the track was uncertain, with computer models indicating an eastward path that stretched from South Carolina to New England.
In a joint conference, hurricane center chief Bill Read and Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said the storm could hit anywhere in the target zone or hit the mid-Atlantic coast, or possibly trigger severe flooding in New England.
“The impact could be widespread, depending on exactly where the storm goes,” Read said. “We see no reason for it not to be a major hurricane.”
Fugate said Irene’s projected path was so close to the coast that communities must “be on a hair-trigger” when it comes to evacuations.
Irene has so far left some damage in its wake but no reported deaths.
U.S. President Barack Obama, at the Puerto Rican governor’s request, issued a disaster declaration for the island, which sustained power outages affecting nearly 1 million people and widespread flooding.
In the Dominican Republic, officials reported flooding, downed trees and snapped power lines. It also hit oceanfront communities in the west and north, damaging homes and forcing 12,500 people to evacuate. An estimated 200,000 were without power.