HURRICANE IRENE

East Coast prepares for Hurricane Irene; Could become Category 4

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BUXTON, N.C. (AP) - From North Carolina islands connected to the mainland by just a handful of bridges to the waterlogged shores of New England, officials are calculating what they need to do if Irene becomes the first major hurricane to strike the East Coast in seven years.

Photo: NOAA

They're scrambling to inspect bridges, dusting off evacuation plans and getting sandbags ready for potential floods. And considering where and when to move people out of harm's way.

"You have to recognize that you're living here on an island, and island living represents certain risks," said Edward Mangano, county executive in Long Island's Nassau County, where school buses were being moved to higher ground in case they're needed to evacuate residents to storm shelters. "And those risks appear now, at least, to be tracking toward us."

Irene could hit North Carolina's Outer Banks on Saturday afternoon with winds around 115 mph (185 kph). It's predicted to chug up the East Coast, dumping rain from Virginia to New York City before a much-weakened form reaches land in Connecticut. Finally, it should peter out in Maine by Monday afternoon.

A hurricane watch was issued early Thursday for much of the North Carolina coast including the Outer Banks. A hurricane watch means hurricane conditions are possible within 36 hours. Also, a tropical storm watch was issued for much of South Carolina's coast.

Meanwhile, a new tropical depression formed far out over the Atlantic early Thursday, with the National Hurricane Center saying it would likely become a tropical storm later in the day.

Even without hurricane-force winds, northeastern states already drenched from a rainy August could see flooding and fallen trees from Irene.

"You want to go into a hurricane threat with dry soil, low rivers, a half moon," New Jersey state climatologist David Robinson said.

That is not the case. The Garden State has gotten twice as much rain this month as in a normal August, and high tide happens at 8 a.m. EDT on Sunday, when Irene might be passing by.

Early Thursday, the storm was thrashing the Bahamas with widespread damage reported on at least two southern islands. It was a powerful Category 3 hurricane with winds at 115 mph (185 kph). Forecasters said the winds will ramp up quickly over the next day and Irene was expected to blow into a monstrous Category 4 with winds at least 131 mph (210 mph).

Hurricane and tropical storm watches would likely be issued for parts of the Carolinas later Thursday.

While the storm's path isn't definite, officials are taking nothing for granted.
In Maryland, inspections of bridges looking for cracks in the support piers and other structural features found no damage, according to state transportation agency spokeswoman Teri Moss. In Virginia, with a southeastern corner that could be in Irene's way, cities along the coast are reviewing their evacuation plans, said Laura Southard, spokeswoman for the state Department of Emergency Management.

"If there is an evacuation, people don't have to go to Richmond or Williamsburg," she said. "They just have to get to higher ground. There are multiple routes out. Cities and localities work hard year-round on their plans."

North Carolina's Outer Banks, which look the likeliest to get a serious hit from Irene, have a long history of hurricanes, and building codes and emergency plans reflect that. Structures in the region are designed to withstand up to 110 mph sustained winds and gusts of up to 130 mph for three minutes. Evacuation routes are meticulously planned, down to the order in which counties hit the road.

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