Hurricane Irene pounds Bahamas; evacuations begin in N.C.
Hurricane Irene began lashing the southeastern Bahamas Wednesday morning as residents on the North Carolina coast -- where the storm is expected to make landfall Saturday -- watched, waited, stocked up on food, and, in some cases, began fleeing to safer inland locales.
The storm was about 370 miles southeast of Nassau at 5 a.m. eastern time Wednesday, according to the National Hurricane Center, with sustained winds near 110 miles per hour, and gusts even higher. For now, that makes it a Category 2 hurricane. But the storm is gathering strength, and will likely be a strong Category 3 or weak Category 4 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale by the time it slams into North Carolina.
A Category 4 hurricane has winds of 131 to 155 miles per hour, and packs "a very high risk of injury or death to people, livestock and pets due to flying and falling debris," according to the National Weather Service.
The southeastern Bahamas are already experiencing hurricane conditions, and the island nation is expected to take a pounding well into Thursday. The Nassau Guardian newspaper reported Tuesday that the economic damage registered well before the storm hit, as tourists and pleasure boats returned home.
The paper also raised concerns that the hurricane would exacerbate a dengue fever outbreak that has plagued New Providence, the main island.
The storm is moving to the west-northwest at 9 miles per hour, on a path that will likely spare Florida and Georgia, but reach North Carolina's Outer Banks by Saturday afternoon or evening, according to Accuweather.com.
Heavy rain is likely to begin in North Carolina on Friday, however. Storm surges could be 7 to 13 feet.
From North Carolina, Irene is predicted to head north to New England, arriving there Sunday as a Category 1 storm, with "very dangerous" winds of 74 to 95 miles per hour.
The Associated Press reports that evacuations have begun on tiny North Carolina barrier island of Ocracoke, which is accessible only by boat. Officials told tourists -- of which there may be thousands -- to evacuate on Wednesday.
The island's 800 full-time residents have until Thursday to evacuate. The state-run ferry boats can carry 50 cars at a time, the wire service reported -- one of numerous logistical challenges officials face in moving thousands of people to safety quickly.
The state government is considering reversing traffic on the eastbound lanes of Interstate 40, allowing more people to flee westward.
--Richard Fausset in Atlanta