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Hurricane Irene strengthens, puts Bahamas in its sights

Hurricane Irene has strengthened and could become a Category 3 as it slams into Bahamas, Tuesday.

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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.

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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.

"We have taken all precautions," presidential spokesman Rafael Nunez said.

Irene is forecast to grow into a Category 3 hurricane late Tuesday as it moves over the warm waters of the Turks and Caicos Islands and the southeastern Bahamas, and could maintain that strength as it nears the U.S. coast.

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

"We must prepare for the worst and hope for the best," said Joe Martinez, chairman of the Miami-Dade County Commission.

Officials in Charleston, South Carolina, 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 (35 centimeters) 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. There were no reports of deaths or major injuries, 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.

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