HURRICANE IRENE

Hurricane Irene upgraded to Category 3

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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Virginia's emergency management chief urged residents to prepare for a dangerous storm as Hurricane Irene's projected path veered slightly to the east, putting it on a track that would spare the state's coast a direct hit but still produce plenty of strong winds and heavy rain.

The Virginia Department of Emergency Management said Wednesday that the hurricane could cause flooding in eastern Virginia and pummel the Hampton Roads area with winds up to 95 mph. Areas west of Interstate 95 could get winds of at least 39 mph, the department said.

"Irene's path is not certain, and a small change in the track could bring different impacts," department coordinator Michael Cline said. "Virginia state agencies are getting ready for the storm, and so should residents."

Check WJLA.com for updates for local events, including the Columbia Heights Festival.

Forecasters have yet to pinpoint where the hurricane will make landfall. It is currently a Category 3 storm with winds of 120 mph.

Officials said Irene could cause flooding, power outages or worse as far north as Maine, even if the eye of the storm stays offshore. Hurricane-force winds were expected 50 miles from the center of the storm.

Predicting the path of such a huge storm can be tricky, but the National Hurricane Center uses computer models to come up with a "cone of uncertainty," a three-day forecast that has become remarkably accurate in recent years. Forecasters are still about a day away from the cone reaching the East Coast. A system currently over the Great Lakes will play a large role in determining if Irene is pushed farther to the east in the next three or four days.

Officials hadn't decided whether to postpone Sunday's dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial on the National Mall. Hundreds of thousands were expected for that event.

Old Dominion University in Norfolk announced that it will close dormitories Thursday evening and shut down the entire campus Friday evening because of the storm. The start of fall classes was pushed back from Saturday until Tuesday.

In Virginia Beach, innkeepers and tourism officials were keeping a wary eye on a storm that threatened to spoil the next-to-last big weekend of the vacation season.

Jimmy Capps, manager of the Breakers Resort Inn in Virginia Beach, said the 56-room hotel has received a few cancellations for the weekend but was still about 80 percent booked.

"People are kind of taking a wait-and-see approach," Capps said. "It just appears they're not quite sure what the storm is going to do. The thing I'm amazed at now is that we haven't had more cancellations so far."

Stephanie Newsom, morning manager at the Colonial Inn, said 188 of the 214 rooms were still reserved for the weekend.

"We're just waiting to see whether it moves up the coast or not," she said of the hurricane. "Nobody's packing up and leaving."

Pam Lingle, spokeswoman for the Virginia Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the city's visitor center had received few calls from tourists concerned about the storm.

Capps said he was encouraging customers to wait at least until Thursday to decide whether to cancel reservations.

If at that time it appears Virginia Beach will be hit hard, Capps is in favor of customers canceling or rescheduling their visit.

"If it's going to be serious, I want the building empty," he said.

National Weather Service meteorologist Dan Proch in Wakefield said Irene is not headed directly for Virginia but could still wreak havoc along the state's coast.

"We will see tropical storm to hurricane force wind gusts along the immediate coast and there will be some storm surge, but right now trying to quantify it is hard," Proch said.

He said that on Tuesday, the hurricane appeared headed more toward the Norfolk area.

"Now the track is looking like it might not even make landfall except on the extreme eastern Outer Banks" of North Carolina, Proch said, although he said that could still change over the next couple of days.

The U.S. Coast Guard suggested residents buy a battery-operated National Weather Service radio to keep up with storm reports if they lose power.

Coast Guard Lt. Jack Smith said people also were advised to stay off the water because the Coast Guard planned to move its vessels to designated "safe havens," which would delay response times if boaters get into trouble and signal for help.

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