- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 23, 2011

MIAMI (AP) — Forecasters said Tuesday there is a possibility that Hurricane Irene could move into the Chesapeake Bay by Sunday.

Projections from the National Hurricane Center in Miami show Irene could make landfall on the North Carolina coast, then move toward the north into the Chesapeake Bay area on Sunday.

The updated forecast released Tuesday morning said Irene currently was centered about 70 miles south of Grand Turk Island. It was moving west-northwest at 12 mph with maximum sustained winds near 100 mph.

However, forecasters caution that predictions made days in advance can be off by hundreds of miles. For instance, some models show Irene could remain offshore along the East Coast.

Emergency officials from Florida to the Carolinas were watching Irene closely on Tuesday as the first hurricane to seriously threaten the United States in three years churned over energizing tropical waters. The storm already has 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, spokesman Dennis Feltgen said.

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. 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 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. Also, they 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.”

After several extremely active years, Florida has not been struck by a hurricane since Wilma raked across the state’s south in October 2005. That storm was responsible for at least five deaths in the state and came two months after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans.

Irene slashed directly across Puerto Rico, tearing up trees and knocking out power to more than a million people. It then headed out to sea, north of the Dominican Republic, where the powerful storm’s outer bands were buffeting the north coast with dangerous sea surge and downpours. President Obama declared an emergency for Puerto Rico, making it eligible for federal help.

Irene was forecast to pass over or near the Turks and Caicos Islands and the southeastern Bahamas by Tuesday night and be near the central Bahamas early Wednesday.

Story Continues →