Dangerous hurricane Irene threatens U.S. Northeast

NASSAU,  (Reuters) – Powerful Hurricane Irene  battered the Bahamas yesterday on a track to the North  Carolina coast that forecasters say could threaten the densely  populated U.S. Northeast, including New York, starting on  Sunday.

Irene, a major Category 3 storm with winds of 120 miles per  hour (195 km per hour), pounded the southeast Bahamian islands  with winds, rain and dangerous storm surge. Tourists fled the  storm and major cruise lines canceled Bahamas stops.

The first hurricane of the storm-filled 2011 Atlantic  season is expected to gather power after it leaves the Bahamas  today and race across open warm waters to clip North  Carolina’s jutting Outer Banks region on Saturday afternoon.

After that, forecasters see it hugging the U.S. eastern  seaboard, swirling rains and winds across several hundred miles  (km) as it churns northward toward New England.
“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 told a conference call.

Read said North Carolina could get tropical storm-force  winds as early as Saturday morning.

At 8 p.m. EDT (midnight GMT), Irene’s center was about 185  miles (295 km) southeast of Nassau, capital of the Bahamas.

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 U.S. oil and gas installations in the Gulf of Mexico.

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.

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

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 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.

“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.

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