A strengthening Hurricane Irene churned on a northwest track toward the Southeast United States on Tuesday, threatening the Turks and Caicos Islands and the Bahamas with battering winds and rain and dangerous surf.

While the U.S. National Hurricane Center's five-day forecast now sees a possible landfall in North Carolina this weekend, forecasters have been cautioning that such projections can have a margin of error of as much as 250 miles (400 km).

Irene, now a Category 2 storm, was heading over the Turks and Caicos and southeastern Bahamas. It was expected to become a major Category 3 storm, with winds over 111 mph (178 kph), by Wednesday and intensify further to a Category 4 as it neared the southeast U.S. coast by Friday.

Irene is forecast to become a larger than average hurricane, the Miami-based hurricane center said.

The powerful storm, the first hurricane of the busy 2011 Atlantic season, looks set to be the first hurricane to hit the United States since Ike pounded the Texas coast in 2008.


Reuters Hurricane Tracker: r.reuters.com/san78n

National Hurricane Center: www.nhc.noaa.gov

Skeetobite Weather: www.skeetobiteweather.com

Weather Underground www.wunderground.com/tropical


Authorities along the U.S. Atlantic seaboard, from Miami to New York, were closely watching Irene's possible path, with at least some computer forecast models showing it might even sweep up near New York City early next week.

Everybody living on the eastern coast of the U.S. should monitor Irene and review their hurricane preparations over the next few days, Dr. Rob Carver, a hurricane expert with private forecaster Weather Underground, wrote in a blog on Tuesday.

The storm could be the catalyst the insurance industry has been seeking in its quest for across-the-board premium increases, in what already promises to be the costliest year in history for natural disasters around the globe.[ID:nN1E77L0D8]

At 8 a.m. (noon GMT), Irene had top winds of 100 miles per hour (160 kph) and was 55 miles (90 km) northeast of Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, and 70 miles (110 km) south-southeast of Grand Turk Island.

The center of the hurricane was heading to the Turks and Caicos Islands and the southeastern Bahamas. The NHC warned an extremely dangerous storm surge would raise water levels by as much as 9 to 13 feet (3 to 4 metres) on the low-lying islands.

President Barack Obama, who was briefed about Irene while on vacation at the Massachusetts island of Martha's Vineyard, signed an emergency declaration on Monday for Puerto Rico after the storm pummeled the U.S. island territory with heavy rains and winds.

Puerto Rican authorities reported power outages and some flooding, but there were no reports of deaths or injuries.


Earlier on Monday, Irene, then still a tropical storm, raked across northeast Caribbean islands, and a fire caused by a lightning strike destroyed a luxury home on Necker Island, owned by British billionaire Richard Branson. [ID:nL5E7JM1YT]

British Oscar-winning actress Kate Winslet, who was staying there, helped carry Branson's 90-year-old mother to safety, said Branson, founder of the Virgin Group VA.UL.

It's very much the Dunkirk spirit here. We will rebuild the house as soon as we can, Branson wrote in his blog from Necker Island, which is part of the British Virgin Islands.

As Irene swept past the northern Dominican Republic on Tuesday, hotels in the north coast tourism resort of Puerto Plata closed their beaches and were asking guests to stay in their rooms as a safety precaution.

Dominican Republic civil defense officials said about 1,000 people had sought shelter in refuges, but no deaths or major damage had so far been reported. Schools were closed.

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 hit to densely populated south Florida, and steering it instead to the Carolinas.

While the core of the storm was expected to stay out to sea as it moved past Florida, Irene was wide enough for its outer squalls to reach the Florida shore.

Forecasts showed Irene posing no threat to U.S. oil and gas installations in the Gulf of Mexico.