Hurricane Irene heads towards U.S.

A resident rides a horse through a flooded neighborhood after the passing of Hurricane Irene in Nagua on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic, Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2011.
AP Photo/Roberto Guzman
AP Photo/Roberto Guzman

MIAMI (AP) — Hurricane Irene has strengthened to a major Category 3 storm as it heads toward the East Coast.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami says Irene’s maximum sustained winds have increased Wednesday to near 115 mph (185 kph) with additional strengthening forecast during the next day or so.

Meanwhile, evacuations have begun on a tiny barrier island off North Carolina early Wednesday in a test of whether people in the crosshairs of the first serious hurricane along the East Coast in years will heed orders to get out of the way.

Irene is centered about 335 miles (540 kilometers) southeast of Nassau in the Bahamas and is moving west-northwest near 9 mph (15 kph).

On Tuesday in the Dominican Republic hundreds were displaced by flooding and were forced to take refuge in churches, schools or relatives’ homes. Electricity also was cut in some areas.

Tourists and residents in the Turks and Caicos Islands retreated to their homes and hotels on Tuesday as Hurricane Irene barreled toward the British territory.

The government urged those living along the coast to seek higher ground and moved the elderly and sick to shelters and hospitals.

“You started to see the hurricane shutters go up. People are not taking any chances,” Horatio Tuitt, a disaster management agency manager, said in a phone interview.

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. It was about 70 miles (110 kilometers) south of Grand Turk island early Tuesday afternoon, with maximum winds of 100 mph (160 kph).

“We’re waiting to see what the storm is going to throw at us,” Tuitt said. “If the storm stays on its current track, we should be back in business tomorrow.”

At the Comfort Suites Resort in Providenciales, Gary Anderson and his wife, both of Delaware, said they were preparing to experience their first hurricane.

Anderson said he anticipated chaos after two days of snorkeling and other activities.

“Don’t know how long it’s going to last, don’t know what the 100 mile per hour winds are like, but we’ll get through it,” he said.

The government assured people it has enough emergency supplies available, and that a Royal Navy ship is on standby in Curacao.

“We are already experiencing the first effects of the storm on the island, and we can expect the conditions to worsen throughout the day,” said Acting Gov. Martin Stanley.

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