SANTO DOMINGO (Reuters) - Hurricane Irene could hit the Southeast United States as a major Category 3 storm on the weekend after sweeping north of the Dominican Republic and pummeling Puerto Rico on Monday, forecasters said.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center’s five-day forecast showed the first hurricane of the 2011 Atlantic season swinging up Florida’s east coast on Thursday for a possible landfall in South Carolina on Saturday.
Irene, the ninth named storm of the busy 2011 Atlantic season, looks set to be the first hurricane to make landfall in the United States since Ike savaged the Texas coast in 2008.
Authorities along the United States’ Atlantic seaboard, from Miami to New York, were closely watching the possible path of Irene, with at least some computer forecast models showing it might even sweep up near New York City early next week.
President Barack Obama was briefed about Irene while on vacation at Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, White House officials said.
At 2 p.m. EDT Irene was skirting the Dominican Republic’s north coast, carrying winds of 80 miles per hour, the Miami-based hurricane center said. The storm’s center was about 50 miles northeast of Punta Cana, a major tourist zone in the east of the Dominican Republic.
Earlier, Irene buffeted Puerto Rico with winds and heavy rain, knocking out power and downing trees in the U.S. territory as it churned westward on a track that will take it over the Turks and Caicos Islands and the Bahamas before approaching south Florida.
Hotels in the Dominican Republic’s Punta Cana area closed their beaches and asked guests to stay indoors for safety.
“We’ve recommended that they stay in their rooms,” Beatriz Lopez, a spokesperson for the Grand Palladium resort, said, and other hotels reported similar precautions.
The NHC said Irene would track just north of Hispaniola island, shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti, on Monday, sweep near or over the Turks and Caicos and southeast Bahamas on Tuesday, and near the central Bahamas early on Wednesday.
Hispaniola has impoverished Haiti on its western side and there were fears that rain from Irene could trigger deadly floods and mudslides in the country, which is still struggling to recover from a devastating 2010 earthquake.
The U.S. military hospital ship Comfort, which was treating patients and carrying out surgeries in the Haitian port capital of Port-au-Prince, was ordered by its commanders to suspend its operations and seek safe haven at the approach of Irene.
Irene was a Category 1 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of intensity, but the NHC saw it strengthening into a Category 3 major hurricane over the Bahamas, with winds over 111 mph. It was seen making U.S. landfall as a Category 3.
Forecasters said a low pressure trough over the eastern United States was expected to keep Irene’s track to the east, reducing the risk of a direct landfall in densely populated south Florida, and steering it instead to the Carolinas.
Current forecasts showed Irene posing no threat to U.S. oil and gas installations in the Gulf of Mexico.
In Puerto Rico, authorities said nearly 800 people had sought refuge at emergency shelters as the hurricane passed.
There were no reports of deaths or major injuries.
But 800,000 people — about half of the island’s electricity customers and including the capital, San Juan — were left without power by the storm, which also felled trees, swelled rivers over their banks and flooded some roads.
Governor Luis Fortuno said the worst-hit area was the east coast, from Fajardo to Yabucoa, and he had asked the U.S. government to declare Puerto Rico a disaster area so it can gain access to emergency funds.
On Monday morning, rains and winds had already eased in San Juan and the airport was expected to reopen.
Schools and government offices were closed for Monday in the U.S. territory of 3.9 million people, but tropical storm warnings were lifted after the hurricane passed.
Additional reporting by Alister Bull in Vineyard Haven, Mass., Reuters in San Juan, Tom Brown and Jane Sutton in Miami; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Peter Cooney