Irene strengthens to Category 2 hurricane

SANTO DOMINGO,  (Reuters) – Hurricane Irene  strengthened into a Category 2 hurricane as it swept north of  the Dominican Republic yesterday and could hit the Southeast  United States as a larger and more powerful storm during the  weekend, forecasters said.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center’s five-day forecast  showed the first hurricane of the 2011 Atlantic season swinging  parallel to Florida’s east coast on Thursday for a possible  landfall in North or South Carolina on Saturday.

Irene, the ninth named storm of the busy 2011 Atlantic  season, looks set to be the first hurricane to hit the United  States since Ike savaged the Texas coast in 2008.

It could also be the catalyst that 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.

Authorities along the U.S. Atlantic seaboard, from Miami to  New York, were closely watching Irene’s possible path, with at  least some computer forecast models showing it might even sweep  up near New York City early next week.

President Barack Obama was briefed about Irene while on  vacation on the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard,  White House officials said.

At 11 p.m. EDT (0300 GMT) Irene had top winds of 100 miles  per hour (160 km per hour) and was 100 miles (160 km) east of  Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic.

Irene was expected to strengthen further into a Category 3  hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson intensity scale, with  winds over 111 mph (178 kph), before hitting the southeast U.S.  coast by the weekend, the Miami-based hurricane center said.

The storm was off the northern coast of the Dominican  Republic yesterday night and was moving west-northwest. It  seemed to have spared the economically important tourist area  of Punta Cana as it passed by earlier in the day.

“It was a non-event … It was kind of just of rainy day,  it could have been a lot worse,” Mike Bryant, who runs a small  adventure tourism company at Punta Cana, told Reuters.

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