AP / NOAA
(MIAMI) — Emergency officials from Florida to the Carolinas were closely watching Irene Tuesday as the first hurricane to seriously threaten the U.S. in three years churned over energizing tropical waters. The storm has already cut a destructive path through the Caribbean.
Forecasters say the hurricane could grow to a monstrous Category 4 storm with winds of more than 131 mph before it's predicted to come ashore this weekend on the U.S. mainland. The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami expected Irene to reach Category 3 strength on Tuesday, said spokesman Dennis Feltgen.
Officials could begin issuing watches for parts of the U.S. mainland later in the day. Because the storm is so large, Florida could begin feeling some effects from the storm late Wednesday.
Current government models have the storm's outer bands sweeping Florida late this week before it takes aim at the Carolinas this weekend, though forecasters caution that predictions made days in advance can be off by hundreds of miles. Georgia is also likely to be affected.
The last hurricane to make landfall in the U.S. was Ike, which pounded Texas in 2008.
For now, the first Atlantic hurricane of the season had maximum sustained winds early Tuesday around 100 mph and was centered about 55 miles northeast of Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic. The hurricane was moving west-northwest near 10 mph. "For residents in states that may be affected later this week, it's critical that you take this storm seriously," said Craig Fugate, administrator at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Emergency officials in North Carolina were checking "pre-landfall operations" to make sure equipment such as trucks, forklifts, generators and computers were working, said Ernie Seneca, spokesman for the state Department of Crime Control and Public Safety. They also were taking inventory of food and water supplies.
To the south in Miami, Julio Gonzalez was heeding the warnings and headed to a hardware store to pick up what he needed to protect his home. "I'm gonna board up," he said Monday. "It's best to play it safe."
Others were stocking up on bottled water and plywood. And Hurricane Irene was trending on Twitter, with many users sharing updates on the storm's progress while others hoped it wouldn't come their way. "We want to make sure Floridians are paying attention," said Bryan Koon, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, who met Monday with the governor. "We are at the height of the hurricane season right now. If it's not Hurricane Irene, it could be the follow-up storm that impacts us."