Irene, First 2011 Atlantic Hurricane, Heads Toward Florida

Hurricane Irene, the first of the 2011 Atlantic season, picked up strength as it moved toward the southeastern Bahamas on a path that could take it to Florida by week’s end, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

Irene, with maximum winds of 80 miles (129 kilometers) per hour, was about 90 miles west-northwest of San Juan, Puerto Rico, as of 9 a.m. East Coast time and is moving west-northwest at 14 mph, according to an advisory by the Miami-based hurricane center.

“We definitely think it’ll make landfall in the southeastern part of the U.S.,” said Kristina Pydynowski, a meteorologist with State College, Pennsylvania-based AccuWeather Inc.

Irene may even reach Category 3 strength with sustained winds of at least 111 mph, she said. The NHC website says a storm of this magnitude would cause “devastating damage” with a “high risk of injury or death.”

The NHC expects the hurricane to pass over Puerto Rico this morning and reach the north coast of the Dominican Republic later today. Irene will veer northward over the next few days, bringing it across the Bahamas by Aug. 25 and the east coast of Florida the next day, they forecast.

“If you’re in south Florida, now is the time to get prepared,” the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency said on its website.

Orange Crop

Florida’s orange crop is vulnerable to tropical weather if the area is exposed to strong winds. Orange-juice prices have climbed 20 percent from a year earlier as frost and dry weather hurt the Florida crop. Futures for November delivery closed at $1.6415 a pound on ICE Futures U.S. in New York last week.

“Its a bit of a wait-and-see at this point in time. We need to get a couple days nearer to see what the damage is going to be” to the orange crop, Jim Dale, senior risk meteorologist at British Weather Services at High Wycombe, England, said by phone.

A hurricane warning in Puerto Rico has been changed to a tropical storm warning. Hurricane warnings continue for the north coast of the Dominican Republic, while watches are in force for the north coast of Haiti and the Central Bahamas. Warnings are issued for areas where hurricane-force winds are expected in the coming 36 hours and a watch is issued when there is a possibility of hurricane-force winds in the coming 48 hours.

Storm Winds

Hurricane-force winds extend outward for 15 miles from Irene’s core, and tropical-storm-force winds extend for 150 miles, mostly to the northwest and northeast of the core, the center said in its advisory.

The storm may drop 5 to 10 inches (13 to 26 centimeters) of rain across Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, the southeastern Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos, with as much as 20 inches in some areas and “life-threatening flash floods,” the hurricane center said. A storm surge may lift water levels by as much as 4 feet above normal tide levels along the coast of the Dominican Republic, it said.

Hovensa LLC’s St. Croix refinery is located on the U.S. Virgin Islands, where a tropical storm warning is in effect. The refinery has a capacity of 525,000 barrels a day.

Gulf Unlikely

The storm probably won’t enter the Gulf of Mexico, home to 31 percent of U.S. oil output and 7 percent of natural gas.

“It looks like most of the models are looking somewhere along the east coast from Florida up to North Carolina,” said Travis Hartman, meteorologist with MDA EarthSat Weather in Gaithersburg, Maryland. “As far as energy purposes it looks like the Gulf is going to get away from this one. The Gulf is probably pretty safe right now.”

A storm becomes a hurricane when winds hit 74 mph. The last hurricane to hit the U.S. was Ike in 2008, which was a Category 2 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale when it went ashore near Galveston, Texas. The last major hurricane to hit the U.S. was in 2005, according to the hurricane center.

Farther to the west, Tropical Depression Harvey is quickly weakening over southern Mexico and is expected to dissipate by the end of the day, the hurricane center said.

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