All eyes on major Atlantic hurricane

As Hurricane Irene pounded the Bahamas Thursday, emergency officials all along the Atlantic Seaboard were on alert

MIAMI (UPI) | August 25, 2011

Hurricane Irene raked the Bahamas with high winds and rain Thursday, forcing evacuation in parts of North Carolina's Outer Banks, officials said.

A hurricane watch was posted early in the day for North Carolina, from Surf City to the Virginia state line.

The Bahamas had already been hit hard by the storm Wednesday.

Forecasters said there was some uncertainty about the progress of the storm. A hurricane official said residents as far north as New England will be "sweating this thing out."

Irene, a Category 3 hurricane with sustained winds of 115 mph, was about 75 miles north-northeast of Nassau, Bahamas, and about 645 miles south of Cape Hatteras, N.C., moving northwest at 13 mph, the National Hurricane Center in Miami said in its 11 a.m. EDT advisory.

South Carolina was under a tropical storm watch from Edisto Beach north to Surf City, the center said.

Irene was expected to pummel the Bahamas, where a hurricane warning was issued for the southeastern, central and northwestern islands.

Mandatory evacuation orders went into effect in portions of the Outer Banks as state emergency officials prepared for Irene, CNN reported.

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse closed Wednesday along with other tourist attractions, including the Wright Brothers National Memorial visitor center.

Nearly two dozen scheduled flights to and from the Caribbean islands were canceled or delayed Thursday at Miami International Airport, while Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport officials also announced the cancellation of 28 flights in to and out of the Bahamas. The Miami Herald reported.

In Central Florida, emergency-management officials said they were monitoring the storm in case it shifts closer inland.

"We are doing preliminary planning right now with our key response agencies and briefing county administrators," Dave Freeman, manager of the Orange County Office of Emergency Management, told the Orlando Sentinel.

"We're really just watching to see if it intensifies."

The hurricane center said Irene was expected to tack to the north-northwest Thursday, then shift to the north by early Friday. Based on its expected track, Irene will move over the northwestern Bahamas and pass "well offshore" of Florida, the center said.

Irene, expected to gather strength, was a "large tropical cyclone," the center said, with hurricane-force winds extending as far as 70 miles outward from the core and tropical storm-force winds extending outward up to 255 miles.

The storm surge generated by Irene was expected to raise water levels in the Bahamas by as much as 7 to 11 feet above normal tide levels. Near the coast, the surge will be accompanied by large, dangerous waves, the center said.

Irene was expected to dump 6-12 inches of rain over the Bahamas during the next two days. Rain was forecast to lessen across the Turks and Caicos Islands with an additional 1-3 inches possible, bringing the maximum totals to 6-12 inches.

Irene laid a path of destruction in the southern Bahamas Wednesday, blowing wind gusts of up to 90 mph across the islands, toppling a church wall on Mayaguana Island, stripping roofs from a school and government buildings on Crooked Island and downing trees and knocking out power everywhere.

On Long Island in the Bahamas, administrator Jordan Ritchie said wind gusts hit 90 mph by Wednesday afternoon and heavy rain made it difficult to see, The Miami Herald reported.

"The power is off, the water is off and conditions continue to deteriorate," he said. "It's extremely dangerous out there."

Irene was expected to churn east of New Providence Island, where most of the Bahamas' population lives near Nassau, the Herald said. Stephen Russell, director of the National Emergency Management Center, expressed concern about low-lying isolated atolls like Acklins Island, where he said some longtime residents insisted on riding out the storm instead of evacuating.

"We are trying to let them know what they are up against," he said.

Russell said the administrator of Acklins Island told him that "90 percent" of the homes in the island's Lovely Bay settlement were gone but there were no reports of death or injuries.

Meteorologists said uncertainty exists over the timing and effect of the storm system, with one model indicating it would make landfall in North Carolina while another indicated it would remain over the Outer Banks then move toward New York or New Jersey and into the Canadian Maritimes.

"The Northeast and New England are really going to be sweating this thing out," NHC spokesman Dennis Feltgen said.

Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate warned against taking the storm lightly.

"I've never heard of a minor hurricane," he said. "Even tropical force winds can cause damages and power outages well away from the center of circulations."

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