Irene became the ninth named storm of the 2011 Atlantic hurricane season after it developed on August 20 in the eastern Caribbean Sea. The storm is currently located approximately 105 miles (170 kilometers) west-northwest of San Juan in Puerto Rico, according to the National Hurricane Center (NHC). Irene intensified this morning to become the first hurricane of the 2011 season. The storm currently packs sustained winds of around 80 mph (130 kmph), equivalent to a category 1 hurricane. Irene is traveling in a west-northwest direction and is expected to maintain this general motion for the next 48 hours. On this forecast track, Irene is expected to pass just to the north of Hispaniola later today and reach the Turks and Caicos Islands and the southern Bahamas tomorrow. The NHC said hurricane force winds extend 30 miles (45 kilometers) from the center of the storm while tropical storm force winds extend 185 miles (295 kilometers).
A hurricane warning is in effect for the northern coast of the Dominican Republic, the southern Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands. A tropical storm warning has also been issued for Puerto Rico, Haiti and the south coast of the Dominican Republic. Tropical storm conditions are already occurring in Puerto Rico and are expected to reach northern parts of the Dominican Republic later today. Hurricane conditions are also possible in northern Dominican Republic today before reaching the southern Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands tomorrow. The NHC said Irene is expected bring up to 10 inches (255 millimeters) of rain to Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, the southern Bahamas and the Turk and Caicos Islands, enough to cause life threatening flash floods and mudslides. Storm surge warnings have also been issued, with waves up to 6 feet (1.8 meters) above normal tide levels expected in the hurricane and tropical storm warning area. The NHC added that the surge will be accompanied by large and dangerous waves.
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On its current path, Irene is expected to move north of Hispaniola later today, according to the NHC. Irene’s intensity is expected to gradually strengthen as it moves through northern parts of the Caribbean. Although there is significant uncertainty in both the forecast track and intensity, the NHC currently expects Irene to pass through the Bahamas later this week on a trajectory that takes it towards southeastern regions of the United States. The current NHC long range forecast has Irene intensifying into a category 2 hurricane as it approaches the Bahamas. The extended NHC forecast then has Irene running parallel along the eastern coast of Florida towards the end of the week before making landfall in South Carolina on August 27 as a category 3 hurricane. However, forecast models vary significantly, with some showing Irene tracking to the west of Florida and others predicting the storm will curve to the east back out into the ocean. Long-term forecasts are subject to potentially large errors in both track and intensity and forecasters stress it is too early to say if Irene will threaten the United States.
Earlier, Irene moved through the northern Leeward Islands as a tropical storm on August 21. The NHC said Irene brought tropical storm conditions and squalls to some islands, with sustained winds estimated at around 50 mph (85 kmph) as it moved through the region. The governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands declared a state of emergency in order to impose storm curfews and early reports indicate that the strong winds and heavy rain closed airports and flooded low-lying areas across the Leeward Islands. However, no significant damage has been reported in the region at this time. Irene also brought storm winds and heavy rain to Puerto Rico as it crossed the island earlier today. Local media in Puerto Rico reported that about 600 people sought refuge in shelters, and power was cut to 50 percent of the island, including the capital, San Juan, affecting some 800,000 people. Governor Luis Fortuno said the worst-hit area was along the east coast, adding he has asked the U.S. government to declare Puerto Rico a disaster area so it can gain access to emergency funds.
Separately, Tropical Storm Harvey, the eighth named storm of the 2011 Atlantic hurricane season, made landfall in Belize on August 20, bringing tropical storm-force winds and heavy rain to Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. Although authorities reported strong winds and heavy rainfall in each of these countries, no major wind or flood damage has been reported.
Sources: National Hurricane Center, WSI, Associated Press, Reuters News, Agence France Presse, AIR Worldwide
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