Intensifying Hurricane Approaches Turks & Caicos Islands

Posted August 23rd, 2011 at 1:25 pm (UTC-5)
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Forecasters say Hurricane Irene is heading toward the British Caribbean territory of the Turks and Caicos Islands as it continues to strengthen and take aim at the eastern United States.

Irene's center was moving through open water between the British archipelago in the north and the Dominican Republic and Haiti to the south, with maximum winds of 160 kilometers an hour. Turks and Caicos residents were buying supplies and safeguarding property as authorities warned of strong waves and heavy rain later in the day.

Dominican authorities said they evacuated at least 1,000 people from their homes, while Haitian authorities also evacuated some residents as Irene brought tropical storm conditions to the northern coastlines of both nations, which share Hispaniola Island. International aid agencies also mobilized resources to help people affected by the storm in Haiti, which is still struggling to recover from a devastating earthquake last year.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center says Irene is expected to become a major hurricane as it approaches the Caribbean nation of The Bahamas on Wednesday, before moving northwest toward the southeastern United States.

It predicts Irene could intensify further into a Category 4 storm with winds of at least 210 kilometers per hour by Saturday, when it is expected to be near the coast of Florida. Landfall is expected over the U.S. state of North Carolina on Sunday, potentially making Irene the first hurricane to hit the United States in three years.

U.S. authorities said Tuesday Irene is a “very large” system whose tropical storm-force winds extend 330 kilometers from the center, bringing the entire East Coast of the United States in range of the hurricane. They said Irene has the potential to cause flooding in the U.S. mid-Atlantic and New England regions, where soil is saturated from recent heavy rains.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is urging people along the East Coast to monitor the hurricane closely and prepare for severe weather later in the week. The White House says officials briefed President Barack Obama on Tuesday about FEMA's coordination with authorities in states that may be affected by the storm.

FEMA chief Craig Fugate said Tuesday the agency also is in contact with the National Park Service in Washington about the potential of Irene to disrupt a Sunday dedication ceremony for a memorial to civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

Irene intensified into a hurricane over the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico before dawn Monday, flooding streets, knocking down trees and cutting power to about one-million residents. There were no reports of serious injuries. President Obama declared an emergency in Puerto Rico late Monday, authorizing federal aid to help local authorities recover from the storm.

In other developments, lightning associated with Irene triggered a fire at the British Virgin Islands home of British tycoon Richard Branson. British actress Kate Winslet was visiting the residence at the time and carried Branson's 90-year-old mother to safety. No injuries were reported.