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Hurricane Irene Expected to Grow into Major Storm As It Heads for U.S.

Posted on 24 Aug 2011

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Hurricane Irene is expected to grow into a major storm in the next day as it rips through the Bahamas before going ashore in North Carolina over the weekend and moving up the East Coast, possibly threatening New York and New England.

Hurricane warnings are posted for most of the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos islands as Irene, with top winds of 100 miles (160 kilometers) per hour, threatens to gain strength and power over the next three days. It was 55 miles south of Grand Turk Island at about 2 p.m. New York time, according to a National Hurricane Center advisory.

The current track estimates Irene will go ashore in North Carolina on Aug. 27. Visitors to Ocracoke Island and Hyde County were being told to leave tomorrow and residents were being urged to go, according to ABC-affiliate WCTI-TV in New Bern, North Carolina.

“There is nothing between where Irene is now and the U.S. in keeping it from not intensifying further into a major hurricane,” said Chris Hyde, meteorologist with MDA EarthSat Weather in Gaithersburg, Maryland. “The water temperatures are warm especially when you get to the Gulf Stream.

The Gulf Stream is going to explode this thing.”

Possible Costs

Total losses from Irene may reach $3.1 billion across the Caribbean and along the U.S. coastline, according to estimates by Kinetic Analysis Corp. The

National Hurricane Center estimates its top winds will peak at about 125 mph in two days, making it a Category 3 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale.

Those winds are strong enough to blow windows out of high- rise buildings, snap trees and crush older mobile homes, according to the center.

“We have a lot of time for people to get ready but we don’t have forever,” W. Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said today in a conference call. “There is a tendency for people to think of hurricanes to be southern things, but the Mid-Atlantic and the Northeast states need to take the track of Hurricane Irene seriously.”

Predictions of where a hurricane may strike land are often inaccurate, the hurricane center said. The five-year average of error for predicting an event four days away is 200 miles, and for a five-day forecast, it is 250 miles.

Landfall Scenarios

“It is probably making landfall in Wilmington, North Carolina, Saturday evening,” said Paul Walker, an expert senior meteorologist with AccuWeather Inc. in State College, Pennsylvania. “By Sunday, it will be in western Long Island. It is possible it will be a hurricane at that point, it depends on how much it moves over land.”

Among the scenarios that are possible are strikes near New York and Boston, Hyde said.

Hyde said heavy rain and flooding are possible through Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey and New York into New England. A shift in the track to the east may mean the storm would pass out at sea, while a jaunt to the west may mean more than just rain for New York City.

The Bermuda High steers hurricanes, and exactly where the weather system is centered can mean the difference between a storm striking the U.S. and passing harmlessly out to sea, Hyde said. The models try to estimate how the circulation around the high will pull Irene along, he said.

NYC Watches

New York has been tracking the storm since it first appeared off Africa last week, said Chris Gilbride, a spokesman for New York’s Office of Emergency Management. It probably would be a “heavy rain event,” not a hurricane, if it reaches the area, he said yesterday.

In addition to the warnings in the Bahamas, a hurricane watch is in effect for the northern coast of Haiti and a tropical storm warning has been posted for the northern coast of the Dominican Republic.

Hurricane-force winds extend outward for 50 miles from Irene’s core, up from 15 miles yesterday, and tropical-storm- force winds extend for 205 miles, the center said in its advisory.

Irene knocked out power to 900,000 of 1.5 million customers of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, said Orlando Rosado, a spokesman for the agency. As of 11 a.m. 330,000 were still without electricity, he said.

President Obama declared an emergency in Puerto Rico, freeing up federal funds for assistance.

Irene is expected to raise seas to 9 to 13 feet above tide levels throughout the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos, the hurricane center said. Five to 10 inches of rain may also fall on the islands and 4 to 8 inches across Haiti and the Dominican Republic, with some areas receiving as much as 15.

The last hurricane to strike the U.S. was Ike in 2008, a Category 2 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale when it went ashore near Galveston, Texas. The last major hurricane, one with winds of at least 111 mph, to make landfall in the U.S. was Hurricane Wilma in 2005.