Irene batters Bahamas, threatens US north-east

Powerful Hurricane Irene battered the Bahamas on Wednesday on a track to the North Carolina coast that forecasters say could threaten the densely populated US north-east, including New York, starting on Sunday.

Irene, a major Category Three storm with winds of 195km/h, pounded the south-east Bahamian islands with winds, rain and dangerous storm surge. Tourists fled the storm and major cruise lines cancelled Bahamas stops.

The first hurricane of the storm-filled 2011 Atlantic season was expected to gain strength after it leaves the Bahamas on Thursday and race across open waters to clip North Carolina’s jutting Outer Banks region on Saturday.

After that, forecasters see it hugging the US eastern seaboard, swirling rains and winds across several hundred kilometres as it churns northward toward New England.

“The exact centre 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,” US National Hurricane Centre 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 get tropical storm-force winds as early as Saturday morning.

Shades of Ike
At 3am GMT, Irene’s centre was about 245km east-southeast of Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas, and about 1 270km south of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.

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 US oil and gas installations in the Gulf of Mexico.

Irene’s torrential rains were blamed for two deaths in the north-east Caribbean islands. A woman in Puerto Rico and a Haitian man in the Dominican Republic were swept away by floodwaters from overflowing rivers.

US states from the Carolinas northward were on alert and visitors were ordered to evacuate many of North Carolina’s Outer Banks barrier islands on Thursday.

New York governor Andrew Cuomo ordered the state’s Office of Emergency Management to prepare for possible impact from Irene. 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 spokesperson Laura Southard said.

‘Stocking up like crazy’
Earlier on Wednesday, Irene strengthened over the Bahamas to a major Category Three hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson intensity scale, posing a high risk of injury and death.

Forecasters said it could become a Category Four by Thursday.

“Someone’s roof is in my front yard,” Harvey Roberts, an assistant administrator on the sparsely populated south-east Bahamas island of Mayaguana, told reporters on Wednesday, saying “tremendous winds” were lashing homes and buildings there.

Farther north on the scattered low-lying Bahamas, including Nassau, residents were frantically preparing.

“Everyone is either pulling up boats or putting up shutters. We are very well prepared,” said Chuck Pinder, a 28-year-old fisherman in the community of Spanish Wells.

NHC chief Read predicted a “really tough time” for the Bahamas as Irene swept through on Wednesday and Thursday.

Irene dealt a blow to the crucial tourism industry of the Bahamas. Cruise lines rearranged itineraries for more than a dozen ships in the area and tourism officials said the loss of those passenger visits would cost the Bahamas almost $2-million in tax revenues and other spending. Hotels also saw guests cancel or cut short their visits.

Energy firms planned to shut more than 28-million barrels of oil storage capacity in the Bahamas and refineries on the US East Coast were preparing for the storm.

On the US mainland, across the Carolinas coastline and in neighbouring Virginia, residents stocked up with food, water and other supplies, including plywood to board up windows.

“There are people stocking up like crazy — we’re out of generators,” said Tracy Hatfield at the Sam’s Club members-only warehouse at Chesapeake Square. – Reuters

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