Hurricane Irene heads toward Bahamas and US

SAMANA, Dominican Republic (AP) — Hurricane Irene cut a destructive path through the Caribbean on Monday, raking Puerto Rico with strong winds and rain and then spinning just north of the Dominican Republic on a track that could carry it to the U.S. Southeast as a major storm by the end of the week.

Irene 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.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said the Category 1 storm was expected to strengthen during the next two days, and could be near major hurricane strength by the time it tracks over the central Bahamas.

The first hurricane of the Atlantic season was a large system that could cause dangerous mudslides and floods in Dominican Republic, the hurricane center said. It was not expected to make a direct hit on neighboring Haiti.

Irene is forecast to grow into a Category 3 hurricane with winds of 115 mph over the Bahamas on Thursday. And it may carry that force northwest along Florida’s Atlantic coast and toward a possible strike on South Carolina, though the forecasters warned that by the weekend, the storm’s path could vary significantly.

Florida residents were urged to ensure they had batteries, drinking water, food and other supplies.

Officials in Charleston, S.C., also warned residents to monitor Irene closely. It has been six years since a hurricane hit the South Carolina coast.

, said Joe Farmer of the state Emergency Management Division.

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. Resorts pulled up the umbrellas and lounge chairs as the storm made its way toward the country. At the Wyndham Tangerine, a hotel in the resort area of Sosua and Cabarete, the staff converted a conference room into a temporary storm refuge for 300 people, said deputy general manager Karen Gonzalez.

Jose Manuel Mendez, director of the country’s Emergency Operations Center, said that only about 135 people were in public shelters, but that hundreds of others were staying with friends and family to avoid the storm, which was expected to drop as much as 14 inches at higher elevations.

The 100 tourists who booked an ocean-view room at a Puerto Plata resort were moved to another building on Monday for their safety, said Medardo Carrera, manager for VH Gran Ventana Beach Resort, and the hotel ordered its 450 guests to stay inside their rooms Monday night.

At the nearby Casa Colonial Beach & Spa, several tourists packed their bags and fled ahead of the storm, hoping to catch one of the last flights for Miami, said concierge Zadaliy Placido.

The hurricane earlier cut power to more than a million people in Puerto Rico, downing trees and flooding streets on Monday. There were no reports of deaths or major injuries on the island, but Gov. Luis Fortuno declared a state of emergency and urged people to stay indoors to avoid downed power lines, flooded streets and other hazards.

By late Monday afternoon, Irene was centered about 65 miles north-northwest of Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic and it was moving toward the west-northwest at 13 mph. It had maximum sustained winds of about 80 mph (130 kph) with higher gusts, the Hurricane Center reported.

The hurricane was expected to pass near or over the Turks and Caicos Islands and the southeastern Bahamas on Tuesday.

In the overseas U.K. territory of the Turks and Caicos Islands, located in the Atlantic between the Bahamas and Haiti, there was a steady stream of customers buying plywood and nails at hardware stores, while others readied storm shutters and emergency kits at home.

“I can tell you I don’t want this storm to come. It looks like it could get bad, so I’ve definitely got to get my boats out of the water,” said Dedrick Handfield at the North Caicos hardware store where he works.

In the Bahamian capital of Nassau, Henry Vera, of Long Island, New York, said the approaching hurricane will not cause him to cut his vacation short in Cable Beach, where he and his girlfriend are booked at a hotel until Sunday.

“I’ve never been in a hurricane before so I have no idea what to expect,” the 29-year-old Mineola resident said. “But I’m not going to leave early, I still have a week off work and I’m still on vacation.”

In Puerto Rico, 600 crews spread out across the island to repair toppled light poles, and the majority of customers were expected to have power by late Monday, power company spokesman Carlos Monroig said. Schools, most government offices and many businesses remained closed. Flights resumed at the international airport in San Juan by midmorning.

The storm entered through the southeast coastal town of Humacao, but emergency management regional director Orlando Diaz said the damage seemed to be less than he feared.

“We thought things were going to be a bit more tragic,” he said. “I was surprised that we didn’t see the amount of rain I expected.”

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