Hurricane Irene has been hammering the Bahamas as it moves towards the US on a projected track to hug the east coast including densely populated New York and New England.
The first hurricane of the Atlantic season is a category 3 storm (the same strength as Hurricane Katrina was when it destroyed much of New Orleans in 2005), with winds of 185km/h (115mph), and is expected to strengthen.
Hurricane Irene, which has already caused the death of at least one person in Puerto Rico and two in the Dominican Republic, with others reported missing, was lashing the Bahamas capital, Nassau, with heavy rains and gusting winds.
The Bahamas newspaper The Tribune reports that “on the Acklins Island, homes have been completely washed away or have lost entire roofs, power lines have been downed and trees are blocking roads.”
A settlement known as Lovely Bay was destroyed while at least 40 homes were badly damaged on the island of Mayaguana, said Capt. Stephen Russell, director of the country’s National Emergency Management Agency.. Authorities were still gathering damage reports and there were few details on the destruction.
Major damage was also anticipated on the island of Eleuthera, which was being battered Thursday morning, as well as Rum Cay and Cat Island. “That can be devastating for some of those islands,” Russell said.
Hurricane Irene is expected to be a multibillion dollar event for the insurance industry, says Robert Hartwig, president of the Insurance Information Institute. It’s projected that Irene to head through New Jersey to the New York metro area and New England through Sunday.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg revealed Thursday how seriously American officials are taking the threat as he warned city residents in low-lying areas to make for higher ground.
Alex Sosnowski, expert senior meteorologist at AccuWeather.com says Hurricane Irene could be among the “worst hurricane impacts in 50 years along the northern part of the Atlantic Seaboard.”
Hurricane Jeanne in 2004 affected many of the same states and caused $4.15 billion in insured losses. It ranks as the 10th costliest storm in the U.S. Hurricane Floyd in 1999 came up the East Coast and caused $3.5 billion in losses.
Fforecasters are predicting that, once Irene moves past the Bahamas into the warm waters off Florida, it will strengthen even more into a lethal Category 4 storm.
Officials in towns up and down the east coast are scrambling to inspect bridges, sending naval ships away, dusting off evacuation plans and getting sandbags ready for potential floods. They are also considering where and when to move people out of harm’s way.
President Barack Obama, holidaying on Martha’s Vineyard off the East Coast, may also have to face evacuation depending on the storm’s path.
The US Navy on Thursday ordered all its ships in the huge port of Hampton Roads, Virginia, out to sea to weather the storm. On Thursday the NHC issued an alert for the entire US East Coast.
Bill Read, director of NHC, said the track remains uncertain but that “the exact center of the storm may stay close to the coast on Saturday and perhaps become a big threat to New England and Long Island.”
He said the storm had become “very well organized overnight” and was growing in size. “It is in the warmest water and a favorable environment so it could actually get stronger,” he added.
Insurers kept a nervous watch in case Irene threatened wealthy enclaves such as the Hamptons, an eastern Long Island playground for New York’s rich.
Forecasters warned that even if the centre of the hurricane stays offshore as it tracks up the mid-Atlantic coast, 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 spokeswoman Laura Southard said. [via BBC, Property Casualty360 and The Telegraph (UK)]