NAGUA, Dominican Republic – A rapidly strengthening Hurricane Irene roared off the Dominican Republic’s resort-dotted northern coast on Monday, whipping up high waves and torrential downpours on a track that could see it reach the U.S. Southeast as a major storm by the end of the week.
Irene grew into a Category 2 hurricane late Monday and the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said it could reach Category 3 as early as today and possibly become a monster Category 4 storm within 72 hours.
“We didn’t anticipate it gaining this much strength this early,” said center meteorologist Chris Landsea, adding that the ocean’s warm temperatures and the current atmosphere is “very conducive” to energizing storms.
Forecasters said it could still be that strong when it slams into the United States, possibly landing in Florida, Georgia, or South Carolina. Irene is expected to rake the Turks and Caicos and the Bahamas today and Wednesday.
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.
Late Monday, the storm’s downpours forced more than 1,000 Dominicans to evacuate their homes, with some families in low-lying areas fleeing to churches and public buildings. Others hunkered down inside their homes as the winds howled outside and heavy waves pounded the piers and washed onto coastal boulevards.
Residents earlier had jammed supermarkets and gas stations to get supplies for the storm. Schools were closed and emergency services were placed on alert. At least 33 flights were canceled at Santo Domingo’s international airport.
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, though that country could still see heavy rain from the storm.
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.