Hurricane Irene, the first hurricane of the 2011 Atlantic season, is expected to hit the Bahamas and could become a major hurricane Tuesday, the U.S. National Hurricane Center says.

The core of Irene will move to the southeastern Bahamas on Tuesday, and near the central Bahamas early Wednesday.

Data from the hurricane hunter aircraft indicate that maximum sustained winds remain near 100 mph with higher gusts.

Irene, currently a Category 2 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale, is moving toward the west-northwest near 12 mph, and is expected to hold that course through Tuesday, followed by a turn towards the northwest Tuesday night and Wednesday.

Additional strengthening is forecast during the next 48 hours, and Irene could become a major hurricane on Tuesday, the agency said.

A hurricane warning is in effect for the north coast of the Dominican Republic from the Haitian border to Cabo Engano, the Turks and Caicos Islands, and the southeastern and central Bahamas. A hurricane watch is in effect for the north coast of Haiti from Le Mole St. Nicholas eastward to the Dominican border and northwestern Bahamas.

A tropical storm warning is in effect for the south coast of the Dominican Republic from Santo Domingo eastward to Cabo Engano and all of Haiti.

The storm is expected to reach the southeastern Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos later Tuesday morning with hurricane conditions expected by the afternoon and evening. 

Tropical storm conditions are expected to reach the central Bahamas late Tuesday night with hurricane conditions expected by Wednesday. Tropical storm conditions are also possible in the northwestern Bahamas by late Wednesday, with hurricane conditions possible by Thursday.

The hurricane center said rainfall amounts of 3 to 6 inches are expected over northern Hispaniola, with isolated maximum amounts of up to 10 inches possible over higher terrain. The rain could cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides in areas of steep terrain. 

In addition, rainfall accumulations of 5 to 10 inches are expected in the southeastern and central Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos.

Irene hit the island of Hispaniola Monday, with 100 mph winds and severe rain battering the Dominican Republic, but so far missing Haiti.

Wind speeds have classified Irene for a Category 2 determination, but that level could rise to a Category 3 hurricane on Tuesday. It could become a Category 4 storm within 72 hours.

Tropical cyclones of Category 3 and higher are described as major hurricanes in the Atlantic or Eastern Pacific basins. These storms can cause some structural damage to small residences and utility buildings, particularly those of wood frame or manufactured materials with minor curtainwall failures. Recent examples of Category 3 storms include Isidore in 2002, Jeanne in 2004, Lane in 2006 and Karl in 2010.

Hurricane Irene could reach the United States by the end of the week, and Florida and the Carolinas are in the storm's current path.