Irene’s top winds reached 120 miles (193 kilometers) per hour today as it churned 215 miles southeast of Nassau, according to a National Hurricane Center advisory at 5 p.m. It may reach Category 4 status with 135-mph winds tomorrow, the center said.
At 11 p.m. EDT (0300 GMT), Irene’s center was about 150 miles east-southeast of Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas, and about 790 miles south of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.
The Bahamian capital buzzed with last-minute preparations, with the government and some major resorts setting up emergency shelters and store owners boarding up their windows. Nassau’s downtown is known to flood even in heavy rain so the storm surge was expected to make many roads impassable, especially in the colonial downtown.
Some tourists caught the last planes out of the Bahamas on Wednesday while others remained behind with residents and prepared for what was expected to be a rough night as large and powerful Hurricane Irene threatened to deliver punishing winds and floods to the low-lying chain of islands.
“We’re just watching it decimating Crooked Island of the Bahamas, Cat Island looks like it will be in the wheelhouse tonight and Eleuthera is just going to get smashed,” said Dave Samuel, a meteorologist with AccuWeather Inc. “Irene is a massive hurricane and that’s what’s so bad for the Bahamas. It is moving slow and it is huge.”
Many visitors weren’t waiting around to find out what would happen and fled the country, waiting in long lines to catch planes before the airport closed. Some tourists had no choice but to leave since smaller hotels abruptly closed and larger ones were booked up with Bahamian residents looking for a place to ride out the storm. Others flying out simply didn’t want to take their chances with what could be a major storm.
Puerto Rico, which also was hit by Irene, is still struggling with heavy flooding that has stranded motorists and affected several neighbourhoods. Dozens of landslides have been reported and 765 people remain in shelters, Gov. Luis Fortuno told a news conference Wednesday, two days after he declared a state of emergency.
In the Dominican Republic, flooding has stranded at least 85 communities and nearly 32,000 people have been evacuated. Emergency crews equipped with lifejackets and ropes on Wednesday rescued families whose homes were being flooded by a swollen river in the city of San Cristobal, just west of the capital.
Irene’s torrential rains were blamed for two deaths in the northeast Caribbean islands. A woman in Puerto Rico and a Haitian man in the Dominican Republic were swept away by floodwaters from overflowing rivers.
Uneasy forecasters warned yesterday that New England appears to be an increasingly likely bull’s eye for “dangerous” Hurricane Irene, whose wrath could spell disaster in the form of 6 to 12 inches of rain, 125 mph wind gusts and life-threatening ocean surges by Sunday.
“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 … on Sunday,” U.S. 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 added.
Forecasters warned that even if the center 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.
In New York, the most populous U.S. city with 8.2 million residents, officials were opening the emergency operations center in Brooklyn, said Chris Gilbride, spokesman for the Office of Emergency Management.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo also ordered the state’s emergency response team to prepare. Ed Mangano, the executive of Nassau County on Long Island, said storm preparations are taking up 70 percent of his time. The county is clearing drains, reviewing evacuation routes and making shelters ready in case they are needed, he said.
“Irene is an extremely dangerous storm,” said Jeff Masters, co-founder of Weather Underground Inc. in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “It has the highest potential of any storm in the last 50 years to make it all the way to New England as a Category 3.”
The last hurricane to strike the U.S. was Ike in 2008, a Category 2 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale when it went ashore near Galveston, Texas. The last major hurricane, one with winds of at least 111 mph, was Wilma in 2005.