Hurricane Irene heads toward Bahamas

F. LETUVEE
Par F. LETUVEE août 23, 2011 06:11

Hurricane Irene heads toward Bahamas

PHOTO: his NOAA satellite image taken Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2011 at 2

A rapidly strengthening Hurricane Irene has roared off the Dominican Republic’s resort-dotted northern coast, whipping up high waves and torrential downpours as it cuts a destructive path through the Caribbean.

Irene grew into a category two hurricane late Monday and the US National Hurricane Center in Miami said it could become a monstrous category three storm as early as Tuesday.

“We didn’t anticipate it gaining this much strength this early,” said centre meteorologist Chris Landsea, adding that the ocean’s warm temperatures and the current atmosphere are “very conducive” to energising storms.

Forecasters say it could still be that strong when it passes over the Bahamas and slams into the United States by the end of the week, possibly landing in Florida, Georgia, or South Carolina.

By Monday night (Tuesday morning AEST), Irene was centred about 200km east of Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic with maximum winds of 160 kilometres per hour, the hurricane centre said.

Irene is forecast to grow into a category three hurricane late Tuesday as it moves over the warm waters of the Turks and Caicos Islands and the southeastern Bahamas, and could maintain that strength as it nears the US coast.

A hurricane warning was in effect for the north coast of the Dominican Republic and Haiti, an impoverished country that was devastated by a catastrophic earthquake in January 2010 that killed an estimated 225,000 people.

All of Haiti was under a tropical storm warning and authorities issued a red alert.

Late Monday, the storm’s downpours forced more than 1000 Dominicans to evacuate their homes, with some families in low-lying areas fleeing to churches and public buildings.

Dominican officials said the government had emergency food available for 1.5 million people if needed and the country’s military and public safety brigades were on alert.

Earlier, the storm slashed directly across Puerto Rico, tearing up trees and knocking out power to more than a million people, then headed out to sea north of the Dominican Republic, where the powerful storm’s outer bands were buffeting the north coast with dangerous sea surge and downpours.

Police and civil protection officials in the Dominican Republic made their way along the beaches of the country’s northern coast to warn people away from the surging sea on Monday.

Resorts pulled up the umbrellas and lounge chairs as the storm made its way toward the country.

During the storm’s march through the region, British actress Kate Winslet and others escaped uninjured when a blaze gutted Richard Branson’s home on his private isle in the British Virgin Islands.

According to Branson, about 20 people, including Winslet and her young children, were staying in his eight-bedroom Great House on Necker Island as a blaze sparked by lightning took hold in the early morning hours.

Winslet carried Branson’s 90-year-old mother Eve out of the house when the fire broke out.

“She swept her up into her arms and got them out of the house as fast as possible,” Branson, who heads the Virgin Group conglomerate, told Britain’s ITV News.

© 2011 AFP

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