Irene strengthened to a Category 3 major hurricane as it churned through the Bahamas today on a path forecast to take it to North Carolina’s Outer Banks and into New England.
The storm, with winds of 115 miles per hour (185 kilometers per hour), may cause “devastating damage,” the National Hurricane Center said in an advisory at 11 a.m. Eastern time. Evacuations began today on the Outer Banks.
Rain, beach erosion and tidal surge “will be in play from the Mid-Atlantic all the way up to New England as the storm progresses,” center director Bill Read said in a conference call today.
The Bahamas “are going through a really tough time here in the next 24 to 36 hours,” Read said.
Irene, 285 miles southeast of Nassau in the Bahamas, is forecast to pass near the North Carolina coast on Aug. 27 and then strike Long Island and Rhode Island on a path toward Boston early on Aug. 28, according to the center’s projections.
“It looks like it will make landfall as a Category 2 near the eastern tip of Long Island and then impact New England,” said Chris Hyde, a meteorologist with MDA EarthSat Weather in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Hyde said there is a 60 percent to 70 percent chance this track will be accurate. A Category 2 storm has winds of 96 to 110 mph.
Residents and visitors to Ocracoke Island off the North Carolina coast started to evacuate early today, the Charlotte Observer reported. Governor Bev Perdue urged residents yesterday to have three days of food, water and supplies in case Irene comes ashore there.
In New York, the most populous U.S. city with 8.2 million residents, officials plan open the emergency operations center in Brooklyn today, said Chris Gilbride, spokesman for the Office of Emergency Management.
Based on information received from the National Weather Service, city officials assume a “strong possibility” the storm “could impact New York City or Long Island directly.” It has tracked slightly to the east during the past 24 hours, Gilbride said in an interview.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo also ordered the state’s emergency response team to prepare.
Irene is moving northwest at 12 mph, according to the NHC. Hurricane conditions with high winds, heavy rain and deadly surf are occurring over parts of the southeastern Bahamas, and an “extremely dangerous” storm surge will raise water as much as 7 to 11 feet above normal tide levels in parts of the island chain, it said.
Irene’s top winds are forecast to reach 135 mph, or Category 4 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, the NHC said.
Tropical-storm-force winds and flooding may affect the New York City region once Irene moves north, said Kristina Pydynowski, a senior meteorologist with State College, Pennsylvania-based AccuWeather Inc.
As the storm passes along the East Coast, it is forecast to bring heavy rains from Maine to North Carolina, according to the U.S. Climate Prediction Center in Camp Springs, Maryland.
If Irene stays out to sea on its current track, the coast regions of the Middle Atlantic states will be on the weaker side of the storm, Hyde said. However, because Irene is expected to be a large, powerful storm at that point, there is a possibility high winds may accompany rain.
Forecasts of where a storm may strike are often inaccurate. The five-year average margin of error for predicting an event four days away is 200 miles, and for a five-day forecast, it’s 250 miles, according to the NHC.
Since Irene became a named storm late last week, its potential track has shifted slightly to the east every day. The current track has the storm moving over Long Island and through New England just west of Boston, Hyde said. This is a change from yesterday, when forecasters believed the storm would strike near Cape May, New Jersey.
Hyde said the more time that passes and the more information forecasters can gather about the storm, the better the accuracy of the track becomes. By the day after tomorrow, forecasters should be able to say with 90 percent to 100 percent certainty where Irene will strike, he said.
Total losses from Irene may reach $3.1 billion across the Caribbean and along the U.S. coastline, according to estimates from Kinetic Analysis Corp.
The last hurricane to strike the U.S. was Ike in 2008, a Category 2 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale when it went ashore near Galveston, Texas. The last major hurricane, one with winds of at least 111 mph, was Wilma in 2005.