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.