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.