North Carolina, Bahamas brace for Irene
The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said Irene's strength had dropped to Category 1, with maximum sustained winds of 90 mph. But it was expected to strengthen over warm water before reaching the Bahamas and the U.S.
"Irene should come onshore over the Carolinas as a strong Category 3 hurricane," Accuweather said. Category 3 hurricanes pack sustained winds between 111 and 130 mph and inflict devastating damage.
"People in eastern North Carolina, especially the coastal areas and barrier islands from Wilmington on northeast to Hatteras, should begin making preparations for a possible hurricane landfall that brings 100-mph winds or greater, storm-surge flooding, torrential rainfall and possible tornadoes," Accuweather said.
Irene lingered over the Turks and Caicos Islands Tuesday, and the Hurricane Center warned that it would move across the Bahamas on Wednesday and Thursday.
In addition, the storm was expected to produce punishing rains over Puerto Rico and Hispaniola, with up to 15 inches possible. Hispaniola includes Haiti, where nearly 600,000 people remain without shelter since last year's earthquake. The rains "could cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides in areas of steep terrain," the center said. Much of Haiti is deforested, boosting its mudslide risk.
The last major hurricane to hit the Carolinas was Fran, which made landfall Sept. 6, 1996, at Cape Fear, N.C. Packing maximum sustained winds of 115 mph, Fran inflicted more than $5 billion in damages and killed 37 people, including 24 in North Carolina.
-- Connie Stewart
Photo: A huge wave caused by Hurricane Irene sprays people in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, on the island of Hispaniola. Credit: European Pressphoto Agency / Orlando Barría