Emergency officials from Florida to the Carolinas are watching Hurricane Irene as it churns a destructive path through the Caribbean. The hurricane is the first to seriously threaten the United States in three years.
Forecasters predicted that Irene could become a disastrous Category 4 storm with winds over 131 mph before it is expected to hit the U.S. mainland. According to the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) in Miami, Hurricane Irene should reach Category 3 strength on Tuesday.
As of 8:00 a.m. Tuesday, the core of Irene was headed toward the Turks and Caicos Islands and southeastern Bahamas the NHC stated.
The hurricane was about 70 miles south-southeast of Grand Turk Island and 55 miles north of Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic. Irene is moving west-northwest and is expected to continue in this direction through tonight, followed by a turn toward the northwest on Wednesday.
The storm has maximum sustained winds of 100 mph with higher gusts. Hurricane-force winds are extended outward up to 50 miles from the center and tropical storm winds expanded up to 205 miles.
NHC said Irene has become a Category 2 hurricane and additional strengthening is expected over the next 48 hours.
The Associated Press reported that officials could issue watches for parts of the U.S. mainland later Tuesday. Florida could start feeling some effects of Irene late Wednesday simply because the storm is so big.
Forecasters predicted that the storm could even hit Florida later this week, before moving on to the Carolinas this weekend.
"For residents in states that may be affected later this week, it's critical that you take this storm seriously," said Craig Fugate, administrator at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, AP reported.
Ernie Seneca, spokesman for the state Department of Crime Control and Public Safety, told AP that emergency officials in North Carolina were checking “pre-landfall operations” to make sure all equipment such as generators, computers, trucks, and forklifts were working.
Hurricane Ike, which slammed Texas in 2008, was the last to make landfall in the United States.
A Hurricane Warning is in effect for the north coast of the Dominican Republic from Haiti’s border to Cabo Engano, Turks and Caicos Islands, and southeastern and central Bahamas.
Irene is expected to produce an additional one to three inches of rain across Puerto Rico. Northern Hispaniola is predicted to receive three to six inches with maximum isolated amounts of up to ten inches of rain.
NHC also stated that southeastern and central Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands are expected to get five to ten inches of rain.