Hurricane Irene is currently located approximately 80 miles (130 kilometers) east-southeast of Nassau in the Bahamas and 735 miles (1,180 kilometers) south of Cape Hatteras in North Carolina, according to the National Hurricane Center (NHC). The storm packs sustained winds of around 115 mph (185 kmph), equivalent to a category 3 hurricane. Irene is expected to strengthen over the next 24 hours, potentially reaching category 4 status as it approaches the southeastern coast of the United States. Irene is currently traveling in a northwest direction. A turn to the north-northwest is expected today followed by a turn towards the north tomorrow. On this forecast track, Irene is expected to move over the northwestern Bahamas today and pass well offshore of Florida’s east coast tomorrow. The storm is expected to brush the extreme North Carolina coast over the weekend before heading towards northeastern regions of the United States. The NHC said Irene is now a very large storm, with hurricane force winds extending 70 miles (110 kilometers) from the center of the storm and tropical storm force winds extending 255 miles (410 kilometers).
A hurricane warning is in effect for the southeastern, central and northwestern Bahamas. A hurricane watch has also been issued for the North Carolina coast, from north of City Bay to the North Carolina/Virginia border. Hurricane force winds are currently occurring in the northwestern Bahamas. The NHC said Irene is expected bring up to 12 inches (305 millimeters) of rain to the Bahamas over the next 36 hours. Storm surge warnings have also been issued, with waves up to 11 feet (3.5 meters) above normal tide levels expected over parts of the Bahamas. The NHC added that the surge will be accompanied by large and dangerous waves. Surfs swells generated by Irene are also likely to hit parts of the southeastern United States today, generating life threatening surf and rip current conditions.
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On its current path, the NHC said Irene is expected to continue to move over northeastern Bahamas today. Irene’s intensity is expected to strengthen as it moves through the region and could become a category 4 hurricane in the next 24 hours, the NHC said. The NHC official forecast has noticeably shifted to the west since yesterday’s update. The forecast continues to show Irene passing well to the east of Florida (meaning tropical storm conditions are unlikely to be felt in the state), but now has it hitting the extreme North Carolina coast as a category 2/3 hurricane (previous forecasts expected the storm to miss the coastline). The extended NHC forecast shows Irene hugging the northeast coastline after passing North Carolina and making landfall in the New England region as a hurricane or tropical storm, possibly affecting major cities including New York and Boston.
However, forecast models continue to vary, with some showing Irene making landfall near Morehead City 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 a damaging landfall in the United States. Any deviation in Irene’s forecast path could significantly change the potential landfall point, with the NHC cone of uncertainty now including all coastal U.S. states north of the Carolinas. Mandatory evacuation orders have therefore been issued for parts of North Carolina. Reports also said there are concerns over building codes along the U.S. northeast coast. AIR Worldwide (AIR) currently estimates that around USD2.4 billion of insured exposure is located in New York’s coastal counties alone, according to reports.
Irene has already caused significant damage in the Bahamas after it became only the third storm since 1866 to cross the entire length of the island chain, from the southeast to the northwest. Although the capital of Nassau was only affected by tropical storm conditions, extensive damage has been reported elsewhere as the storm left a trial of destruction. Reports said wind gusts of up to 150 mph (240 kmph) damaged properties, downed trees and power lines and caused widespread power cuts in the Bahamas. Officials said communities on Acklins and Crooked islands were devastated, with an estimated 90 percent of the homes in two settlements severely damaged or destroyed. Authorities are also expecting major damage on the islands of Rum Cay, Eleuthera and Cat Island, according to reports. AIR said significant roof damage is likely to buildings subjected to category 3 hurricane wind speeds. It added that business interruption losses may also be significant given the large number of hotels across the Bahamas. Officials said they are waiting for daylight before starting to assess the full scope of the damage. Irene’s damaging winds and heavy rain also hit the Turks and Caicos Islands. Officials reported widespread damage as the severe weather ripped roofs off properties, flooded roads and downed power lines.
Earlier, Irene caused some damage in the Dominican Republic. Wind damage was limited here as the storm moved to the north of the country, meaning it was spared the worst winds. However, flooding was triggered by up to 10 inches (255 millimeters) of rainfall, cutting power to around 200,000 households in the Dominican Republic, cancelling dozens of flights and forcing around 7,000 people to seek refuge in shelters. AIR said the bulk of the insured losses in the Dominican Republic are likely to be the result of flooding.
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. 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.
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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