The United States put its eastern seaboard on alert for Hurricane Irene Monday as the powerful storm barreled up from the Caribbean on a path that could hit the U.S. coast on the weekend.
Even as the hurricane, the first of the already busy 2011 Atlantic season, pounded the Turks and Caicos Islands and the southeast Bahamas with battering winds and rain and dangerous storm surge, coastal residents in Florida and the Carolinas were preparing for Irene’s approach.
“I pray God’s blessing on us all,” Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham said in a statement calling on the residents of his Atlantic archipelago nation southeast of Florida to be ready for the passage of the hurricane.
Irene, which strengthened to a hurricane over Puerto Rico Monday, is the ninth named storm of the June-through- November season and looks set to be the first hurricane to hit the United States since Ike pounded the Texas coast in 2008.
While warning the entire U.S. East Coast to be on the alert, U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate and National Hurricane Center Director Bill Read said it was too early to be certain where Irene would directly hit the coastline.
“We’re going to have a very large tropical cyclone move up the Eastern Seaboard over the next five to seven days,” Read told a conference call in which he spoke along with Fugate.
Calling Irene a “very large storm,” Read said the Miami-based NHC’s “best guess” forecast at the moment was that the hurricane would approach the coast of the Carolinas Saturday morning as a major storm, of Category 3 or upward on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of intensity.
In a separate development, a magnitude 5.9 earthquake struck the U.S. East Coast Tuesday, shaking Washington, New York and other cities.
Read said Hurricane Irene would skirt south Florida but added that after the Carolinas, the New England region of the East Coast could also be at particular risk.
Fugate said evacuations of some coastal areas could be needed as Irene would bring torrential rains, high winds and flooding. “We’re going to potentially see tropical storm-force conditions, very hazardous beach conditions.”
The NHC forecast indicated major eastern cities like Washington and New York could also feel some impact.
Irene could put a damper on Sunday’s dedication ceremony for the new memorial honoring civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. on the National Mall in Washington. Tens of thousands of people, including President Barack Obama, were expected to attend.
“We could see some impacts of Irene on that Sunday time frame,” Fugate said.
Forecasts showed Irene posing no threat to U.S. oil and gas installations in the Gulf of Mexico.
NORTH CAROLINA PREPARES
Irene, now a Category 2 storm, was heading Tuesday over the Turks and Caicos Islands and southeastern Bahamas.
At 2 p.m., Irene had top winds of 100 miles per hour and was 55 miles south of Grand Turk Island in the Turks and Caicos.
Cruise line Royal Caribbean reversed or changed the order of ports of call for six ships. Two ships would skip stops Tuesday and Wednesday at the company’s Coco Cay island in the Bahamas so staff could prepare and evacuate.
Carnival Cruise Lines changed ports of call or shifted the arrival or departure times at ports for seven of its ships, a company spokesman said.
In North Carolina, where the NHC predicts Irene will come ashore Saturday, Governor Bev Perdue urged residents to prepare.
“Please make sure you have three days worth of food, water and supplies. You may lose water or electrical power during the storm, and grocery stores and other businesses may be closed. Also make sure you know the evacuation routes,” Perdue said.
North Carolina Emergency Management Division said coastal Hyde County and Ocracoke island would start voluntary evacuations Wednesday, to be followed by mandatory evacuations if necessary.
Residents stocked up with food and other supplies.
At a hardware store in Charleston, South Carolina, Carlito Resnicki, 29, hauled sheets of plywood to his car to board up his home. “I have a wife. … Mama Bear said go buy plywood, so I came.”
The approaching hurricane could be the catalyst the insurance industry has been seeking in its quest for across-the-board premium increases, in what already promises to be the costliest year in history for natural disasters around the globe.
EMERGENCY DECLARED IN PUERTO RICO
Obama, who was briefed about Irene while on vacation at the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard, signed an emergency declaration Monday for Puerto Rico after the storm pummeled the U.S. territory with heavy rains and winds. Puerto Rican authorities reported power outages and some flooding, but there were no reports of deaths or injuries.
Earlier Monday, Irene, then still a tropical storm, raked across northeast Caribbean islands, and a fire caused by a lightning strike destroyed a luxury home on Necker Island, owned by British billionaire Richard Branson.
British Oscar-winning actress Kate Winslet, who was staying there, helped carry Branson’s 90-year-old mother to safety, said Branson, founder of the Virgin Group.
As Irene swept past the northern Dominican Republic Tuesday, hotels in the north coast tourism resort of Puerto Plata closed their beaches and were asking guests to stay in their rooms as a safety precaution. Schools were closed.
(Additional reporting by Jane Sutton and Tom Brown in Miami, Harriet McLeod in Charleston, S.C., Barbara Liston in Orlando; Reuters in San Juan: Ben Berkowitz in New York; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Peter Cooney)
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