Hurricane Irene lashes Dominican Republic, heads for Bahamas, US

Hurricane Irene hit the Dominican Republic as a Category 2 storm Tuesday, but early reports indicate that most areas have been spared massive damage.

An image made from the GEOS East satellite shows Hurricane Irene on Aug. 23, as it passes over Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. The storm is on a track that could see it reach the US Southeast as a major storm by the end of the week.

An increasingly powerful Hurricane Irene lashed the Dominican Republic’s north coast Tuesday, forcing thousands to seek refuge as it moved north towards the US.

An estimated 7,000 residents from along the Caribbean country’s Atlantic Coast had been evacuated or displaced by the storm, says José Luis Germán, deputy director of the country’s Emergency Operations Center. The center had lost contact with several communities and was still collecting information, he says. No injuries had been reported.

“The situation is changing from minute to minute. We know there is damage, but we don’t know how extensive it is yet,” Mr. Germán says, adding that several communities were without power.

IN PICTURES: Hurricane Irene

The storm strengthened into a Category 2 hurricane with 100 mph winds, the Miami-based National Hurricane Center said in Tuesday morning advisory. It was moving to the northwest at a speed of 10 mph and was likely to strengthen into a major Category 3 storm on Thursday.

The center issued hurricane warnings for the Turks and Caicos and parts of the Bahamas.

By Friday morning, residents in Florida’s East Coast could be affected by the storm, which is projected to strengthen to a Category 4 storm.

The center projected the storm would make landfall in the US in the Carolinas this weekend.

Dennis Feltgen, spokesman for the center, says “an atmospheric tug of war” was creating a path for the storm to skirt to the east of Florida coast. The storm’s size, however, means that strong winds could wreak havoc miles from its center.

Irene, the first hurricane of the 2011 season, on Monday tore through Puerto Rico, leaving roughly 1 million residents without electricity. Gov. Luis Fortuno declared a state of emergency as the storm caused flooding and downed power lines.

It picked up strength as it moved toward the island of Hispaniola, shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Previous models showed it barreling directly over the island, but it moved north.

Disaster averted in Haiti

Although Haiti is expected to see rain and wind, it will be spared a direct hit – a potential disaster for a country where nearly 600,000 remain in refugee camps more than 19 months after the 7.0 magnitude earthquake.

Dominican authorities, meanwhile, maintained a red alert for several communities, where flooding was possible even after the storm moves offshore. The storm could dump as much as 10 inches of rain in spots, the center said.

Dominican Republic prepares for relief efforts

“We had a little bit of luck in that we avoided a direct hit. But some of those communities in the north and northeast are susceptible to flooding,” says Germán.

The country had emergency food and water supplies for 1.5 million people and readied volunteers to assist with evacuations.

Dozens of flights in an out of Dominican airports were canceled and hotels in the tourism-rich Atlantic Coast doubled up on supplies.

The 109-room Gran Bahia Principe resort in the town of Samaná, which sits on a bay off the northern Samaná Pennisula, saw heavy rains and “lots of wind gusts,” says a hotel employee. “There is still a lot of water in the streets and there are trees down. But it is not as bad as it could have been.”

IN PICTURES: Hurricane Irene

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