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Hurricane Irene could be "big threat" to Northeast

Aug 24, 2011, 11:50 a.m.
With storm clouds looming in the background, Charlotte residents Mark and Denise Flanders and daughter Verity enjoy their vacation on the east end of Ocean Isle Beach in Southeastern North Carolina, August 24, 2011. REUTERS/Randall Hill

By Neil Hartnell

NASSAU (Reuters) - Powerful Hurricane Irene began battering the Bahamas on Wednesday on a track to the North Carolina coast that forecasters say could threaten the densely populated Northeast, including New York, starting Sunday.

Irene, a major Category 3 storm with winds of 120 miles per hour, was pounding southeast Bahamian islands with winds, rain and dangerous storm surge. Tourists fled the storm and major cruise lines canceled Bahamas stops for coming days.

The first hurricane of the storm-filled 2011 Atlantic season is expected to gather power after it leaves the Bahamas on Thursday and race across open warm waters to clip North Carolina's jutting Outer Banks region on Saturday afternoon.

After that, forecasters see it hugging the U.S. eastern seaboard, swirling rains and winds across several hundred miles (km) as it churns northward toward New England. The forecast track indicates Florida and Georgia will be spared.

"The exact center of the storm may actually stay pretty close to the coastline during the day on Saturday and then become a big threat for New England and perhaps Long Island toward 96 to 100 hours out on Sunday," National Hurricane Center Director Bill Read said.

"Be advised, it's going to be a very large circulation as it moves north of the Carolinas," he told a conference call.

Read said North Carolina could experience tropical storm force winds as early as Saturday morning.

DANGEROUSLY WIDE HURRICANE

At 2 p.m. EDT, Irene was located about 250 miles southeast of Nassau, capital of the Bahamas.

If Irene makes a direct landfall in the continental United States, it will be the first hurricane to hit there since Ike pounded Texas in 2008. But forecasts showed it posing no threat to U.S. oil and gas installations in the Gulf of Mexico.

At least one person died when Irene pummeled Puerto Rico this week, felling trees and power lines and causing torrential rains after raking across the Caribbean. President Barack Obama has declared an emergency in the U.S. Caribbean territory.

U.S. states from the Carolinas northward were on alert and evacuations were already under way in Ocracoke, the most exposed of North Carolina's Outer Banks barrier islands.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a statement on Wednesday he had ordered the state's Office of Emergency Management to prepare for possible impact from Irene.

Cuomo said coastal zones were most at risk, although inland areas could get hit by heavy rainfall and strong winds.

Forecasters have warned that even if the center of the hurricane stays offshore as it tracks up the mid-Atlantic coast from the weekend, its wide, swirling bands could lash cities including Washington and New York with winds and rain, knock out power, trigger coastal storm surges and cause flooding.

"We're not paying attention just to the eye of the storm. We're looking at how wide it is, how large it is," Virginia Emergency Management Department spokesperson Laura Southard said, advising residents to prepare.

'STOCKING UP LIKE CRAZY'

Earlier on Wednesday, Irene strengthened over the Bahamas to a major Category 3 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson intensity scale, posing a high risk of injury and death. The NHC said it could become a Category 4 by Thursday.

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