Hurricane Irene is currently located approximately 370 miles (595 kilometers) southeast of Nassau in the Bahamas, according to the National Hurricane Center (NHC). The storm packs sustained winds of around 110 mph (175 kmph), equivalent to a category 2 hurricane. Irene is expected to strengthen over the next couple of days, potentially reaching category 3 status as it approaches the Bahamas and the United States. Irene is traveling in a west-northwest direction and a gradual turn to the northwest is expected today. On this forecast track, Irene is expected to pass over the southeastern and central Bahamas today and move across the northwest Bahamas tomorrow. The storm is then expected to approach southeastern regions of the United States. The latest NHC forecast has Irene passing well to the east of Florida on a northerly track that takes the storm over or near the North Carolina coast over the weekend. The NHC said hurricane force winds extend 40 miles (65 kilometers) from the center of the storm while tropical storm-force winds extend 205 miles (335 kilometers).
A hurricane warning is in effect for the southeastern, central and northwestern Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands. Hurricane conditions are currently occurring over parts of the Turks and Caicos Islands and the southwestern Bahamas. These conditions are expected in central and northwestern Bahamas later today and tomorrow. The NHC said Irene is expected bring up to 12 inches (305 millimeters) of rain to the 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 11 feet (3.5 meters) above normal tide levels expected over the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands. 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 continue to move away from the Turks and Caicos Islands and track across southeastern and central Bahamas later today, according to the NHC. The storm is then expected to hit the northwestern Bahamas tomorrow. Irene’s intensity is expected to gradually strengthen as it moves through the region and could become a major hurricane later today, the NHC said. The NHC official forecast has again shifted to the east and is now calling for Irene to pass well to the east of Florida. Although there is significant uncertainty in both the forecast track and intensity, the extended NHC forecast now has Irene passing more than 170 miles (275 kilometers) east of Florida (meaning tropical storm conditions are unlikely to be felt in the state) before brushing the Outer Banks of North Carolina on August 28 as a category 3 hurricane.
Irene is then forecast to weaken to a category 1 hurricane as it runs parallel to the coast and approaches northeastern regions. However, forecast models continue to vary, with some showing Irene making landfall near Cape Hatteras in North Carolina and going on to affect New York while others predict the storm will curve back out into the Atlantic without hitting land. Long-term forecasts are subject to potentially large errors in both track and intensity and forecasters say there is considerable uncertainty as to whether Irene will make landfall in the United States. No hurricane warnings have been issued for the U.S. mainland yet (although the North Carolina counties of Ocracoke and Hyde have declared a state of emergency and evacuation orders have started).
According to EQECAT, the forecast path of Irene shows a similarity to the track taken by Hurricane Floyd in 1999. Hurricane Floyd was a category 4 hurricane at its peak that made landfall in North Carolina. EQECAT said Floyd caused about USD5 billion in losses, primarily from inland flooding in North Carolina. Coastal exposure along the North Carolina coast has increased since 1999 and AIR Worldwide currently estimates that more than USD130 billion of insured exposure is located near the state’s coast, according to reports. AIR Worldwide also warns that Irene’s strong winds and forecast path could result in significant damage in the Bahamas (where insurance penetration is at more than 80 percent for residential and commercial properties). Damaging winds are also expected in the Turks and Caicos Islands. Airports and businesses were therefore shut there and early reports indicate the storm’s powerful winds have downed power lines across the island chain.
Irene caused some disruption in the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Wind damage was limited here as the storm moved to the north of Hispaniola, meaning the countries were spared the worst winds. However, flooding was triggered by heavy rain, cutting power to thousands of people in the Dominican Republic, cancelling dozens of flights and forcing around 1,000 people to seek refuge in shelters. Reports said neighboring Haiti, where hundreds of thousands of people are still living in makeshift camps after a powerful earthquake hit the country in January 2010, was largely spared the worst of the severe weather, although some mudslides were reported near the northern coast.
Irene also brought storm winds and heavy rain to Puerto Rico as it crossed the island on August 22 as a tropical storm/weak category 1 hurricane. Reports said some 1,500 people were displaced by the storm, and nearly a million were left without electricity. Some 120,000 people lost water supplies. Several rivers also burst their banks after up to 10 inches (255 millimeters) of rain fell and many trees and power lines were downed. Governor Luis Fortuno said the worst-hit area was along the east coast, where widespread damage was reported, and he urged people to stay indoors to avoid downed power lines, flooded streets and other hazards. President Barack Obama has signed an emergency declaration for Puerto Rico to help speed up disbursement of federal aid. According to AIR Worldwide, building code enforcement in Puerto Rico is relatively high, meaning insured losses are not expected to be significant.
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. Reports also indicate that the strong winds and heavy rain closed airports, caused scattered power cuts and flooded low-lying areas in the islands of Antigua and Barbuda, St. Kitts and Nevis, Guadeloupe and St. Maarten. However, no significant damage has been reported in the Leeward Islands.
Sources: National Hurricane Center, WSI, Associated Press, Reuters News, Agence France Presse, AIR Worldwide, EQEQACT, BBC News, CNN News, Insurance Day
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