Irene flays Bahamas as North Carolina watches, NY waits
NASSAU (Reuters) – Hurricane Irene washed away homes in the Bahamas on Thursday as the powerful storm wielding battering winds and rain headed toward the eastern seaboard including densely populated New York and New England.
U.S. emergency officials have urged millions of people from the Carolinas north to New England to be on the alert for Irene, now a major Category 3 storm, which is forecast to rake up the coast starting Saturday.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the United States’ most populous city was bracing to experience at least tropical storm conditions and flooding starting on Sunday from Irene, which could hit Long Island as a Category 2 hurricane.
“We hope for the best but prepare for the worst,” Bloomberg told a news conference, adding some evacuations could be possible. The city is positioning rescue boats and helicopters, working to minimize street flooding and gearing up at hospitals.
“The city has already seen the power of Mother Nature once this week, and Mother Nature may not be done with us yet,” Bloomberg said, referring to the 5.8 magnitude earthquake that shook the East Coast on Tuesday.
The northern part of the North Carolina coast went on a hurricane watch in anticipation of Irene’s forecast landfall on Saturday evening in the state’s eastern Outer Banks barrier islands, which are popular with vacationers in the summer.
Weather Underground private forecaster Rob Carver wrote, “I think that there is a 75 percent chance Irene’s secondary landfall will be somewhere between (New York’s) JFK airport and Cape Cod … Irene’s size will cause significant impacts for people living far from its center.”
The U.S. Navy said ships of the Second Fleet based in Hampton Roads, Virginia, were under orders to put out to sea as a precaution to ride out the upcoming storm. Officers said large ships can better weather big storms at sea than in port.
North Carolina authorities have already started evacuations from exposed barrier islands, while residents along the East Coast rushed to stock up on food and water supplies, boarded up windows and secured roofs, vehicles and boats.
Irene, which already caused the deaths this week of at least one person in Puerto Rico and two in the Dominican Republic, with others reported missing, was lashing the Bahamas capital, Nassau, with heavy rains and gusting winds on Thursday.
On Wednesday, it tore through sparsely populated low-lying southeastern islands in the Atlantic archipelago.
The Bahamas newspaper The Tribune reported on its website that on Acklins Island “homes have been completely washed away or have lost entire roofs, power lines have been downed and trees are blocking roads.”
Many residents sought safety in shelters. No report on casualties was immediately available.
U.S. REFINERIES, NUCLEAR PLANTS PREPARE
At 11 a.m., Irene was packing winds of 115 miles per hour and was located about 75 miles north northeast of Nassau.
Power was out in the Bahamian capital and many streets were impassable, with large trees down, The Tribune reported. The Bahamas Department of Meteorology said a station in Arthur’s Town, Cat Island, had recorded a gust of 143 mph (229 km/h).
Many tourists in the Bahamas had already fled the storm and major cruise lines canceled stops there.
The first hurricane of the storm-filled 2011 Atlantic season was expected to gain strength after it leaves the Bahamas on Thursday and race across open waters to clip North Carolina’s jutting Outer Banks region on Saturday.
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.
Forecasters warned that even if the center of the hurricane stays offshore as it tracks up the mid-Atlantic coast, its wide bands could lash cities including Washington and New York with winds and rain, knock out power, trigger coastal storm surges and cause flooding.
Oil terminals, refineries and nuclear plants from the Bahamas to Rhode Island were preparing.
Four catastrophe bonds totaling over $1 billion could leave financial investors exposed to insured losses if Hurricane Irene makes a U.S. landfall.
The Miami-based NHC said Irene would move over northwest Bahamas on Thursday and pass well offshore of central and north Florida later on Thursday and early on Friday.
U.S. National Hurricane Center Director Bill Read warned on Wednesday that Irene could become a “big threat for New England and perhaps Long Island” from Sunday onward.
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.
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.