Hurricane Irene barrels toward US as Caribbean islands take stock of damage

Hurricane Irene is now headed for North Carolina after pummeling Caribbean island nations from the Bahamas to the Dominican Republic, causing some $3.1 billion in damage.

Roberto Guzman/AP
Residents watch the water outside their home in the Moscu neighborhood of San Cristobal, Dominican Republic after the passing of Hurricane Irene on Wednesday. Flooding, rising rivers, and mudslides have prompted the Dominican Republic government to evacuate nearly 38,000 people and more slides were likely in coming days because of days of intense rain from the storm system.

Hurricane Irene roared toward the East Coast on Thursday morning with the potential to wreak the same havoc it left behind in the Caribbean.

As communities up and down the East Coast braced for the first major hurricane to reach their shores in years, Caribbean countries began cleaning up from the deadly and expensive storm.

From the tiny islands in the Eastern Caribbean, where British billionaire Richard Branson's mansion burned to the ground, to the Bahamas, where it pummeled small outlying islands, the first hurricane of the 2011 season was a destructive one.

The US-based Kinetic Analysis Corp. estimated that the damage to the Caribbean could be worth as much as $3.1 billion.

While the damage is tame compared to past hurricanes that have ravaged the storm-prone region, clean up and rebuilding in the hardest hit areas will be arduous.

Storm's path

Among the islands first hit were the British Virgin Islands, where Virgin Group founder Richard Branson's mansion on miniscule Necker Island went up in flames after being hit by lightning.

Hollywood actress Kate Winslet was reportedly inside at the time and is credited with helping to save Mr. Branson's mother.

“Many thanks to Kate Winslet for helping to carry my 90-year-old mum out of the main house to safety,” Branson wrote on his blog. “All family and friends are well, which in the end is all that really matters.”

The storm would later turn deadly, however.

In Puerto Rico, at least one person was killed and roughly 500 were left homeless. In neighboring Dominican Republic, authorities said at least three people died, several more were missing and that 37,743 people had fled their homes.

Emergency workers in the Dominican Republic maintained red alerts – the highest warning level – for 24 of its provinces as rain continued to fall, cresting rivers and flooding homes.

Floods ravage Dominican Republic

“The danger from this storm is ongoing, even if the hurricane has gone,” says José Luis Germán, deputy director of the country’s Emergency Operations Center. Communications with than 85 communities had been severed by the storm, he said, meaning that the number of people affected would likely rise after the full extent of the damage was revealed.

Several communities saw widespread flooding as rivers overflowed.

“There were homes completely covered in water,” says Rafael Rodriguez, who lives in San Cristobal in western Dominican Republic. “The streets are flooded. And the water was still coming.”

Hurricane Irene tame compared to others

Despite the substantial damage it caused, Hurricane Irene was not nearly the most disastrous for the Caribbean – a region accustomed to brutal storms.

History books tell us that the Great Hurricane of 1780 killed roughly 22,000 people, pounding the Caribbean for a week. That storm predated modern record keeping.

Since the 1850s, when record keeping began, the Caribbean’s deadliest storm struck in 1930. Hurricane San Zenon, also known as the Dominican Republic Hurricane, killed at least 2,000 people and injured an estimated 15,000, according to the country’s National Meteorological Office. The storm leveled the capital, Santo Domingo.

Irene’s impact on the US is expected to be widespread. The Miami-based National Hurricane Center predicts the storm will hit North Carolina on Saturday and continue north through New England. The storm’s exact path is yet to be seen. But even communities 70 miles from the hurricane’s center could feel hurricane-force winds.

The costliest hurricane in US history, by far, was Hurricane Katrina, which, in 2005, caused $81 billion in damage and killed at least 1,836 people.

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