Hurricane Irene monster storm threatens U.S.

Evacuations began on a tiny barrier island off North Carolina as Hurricane Irene strengthened to a major Category 3 storm over the Bahamas with the East Coast in its sights, in a storm likely to also hit parts of Canada.

Canada's East Coast may also feel Irene's wrath as it makes landfall as early as this weekend

A resident rides a horse through a flooded neighbourhood after the passing of Hurricane Irene in Nagua on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic on Tuesday. ((Roberto Guzman/Associated Press))

Evacuations began on a tiny barrier island off North Carolina as Hurricane Irene strengthened to a major Category 3 storm over the Bahamas on Wednesday with the U.S. East Coast in its sights, in a storm also expected to hit parts of Canada.

Irene's maximum sustained winds increased to near 185 km/h with additional strengthening forecast, the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said.

The evacuation in North Carolina was a test of whether people in the crosshairs of the first major hurricane along the East Coast in years would heed orders to get out of the way.

The first ferry to leave Ocracoke Island arrived just before 5:30 a.m. in nearby Hatteras with around a dozen cars on board.

It won't be easy to get thousands of people off Ocracoke Island, which is accessible only by boat. The barrier island is home to about 800 year-round residents and a tourist population that swells into the thousands when vacationers rent rooms and cottages. Tourists were told to evacuate Wednesday. Island residents were told to get out on Thursday.

CBC meteorologist Johanna Wagstaffe on Irene's impact on Canada:

Hurricane Irene is on track to hug the U.S. coastline, potentially making landfall in North Carolina Saturday evening as a major Category 3 storm, and then again along the coast of New England on Sunday night.

The finale of Irene will take place in Atlantic Canada. Although it is too early to talk about exact track and intensity of the storm, all forecast models are in agreement that the storm will track across the Maritimes early next week.

Although there is often an error of approximately 400 kilometres when you get that far out in model forecasts, there is some confidence in Irene's current track. The Canadian Hurricane Centre has not issued a statement for Irene yet, but people from Montreal to St John's should start paying attention to this storm over the next couple of days.

Regardless of track and intensity, Irene will be bringing a lot of wind and rain to the East Coast starting Monday.

It wasn't clear how many people on the first arriving ferry Wednesday morning were tourists, but the first two cars to drive off it had New York and New Jersey plates.

Getting off the next ferry about an hour later was a family that included newlywed Jennifer Baharek, 23, of Torrington, Conn. She and her husband, Andrew, were married Monday and planned to spend their honeymoon on the island.

"We just got to spend one day on the beach and then we went to bed early to get up for the evacuation," she said.

Federal officials have warned Irene could cause flooding, power outages or worse all along the East Coast as far north as Maine, even if it stays offshore. The projected path has gradually shifted to the east, though Irene is still expected to make landfall as a major hurricane in North Carolina sometime over the weekend.

Canadian emergency and weather officials are also warning that Irene could affect Nova Scotia in particular if it stays on its current path.

The Canadian Hurricane Centre in Dartmouth, N.S., forecasts that Irene may impact the mid-Atlantic as early as Sunday afternoon but as late as Tuesday. Anywhere between Montreal and Newfoundland and Labrador could feel the stormy effects that are likely to be unusually heavy rain.

Nova Scotia's Emergency Management Office is advising people to be prepared, including having emergency kits. Homeowners are warned to trim loose branches on trees so they don't become dangerous projectiles.

Speaking Wednesday on ABC's Good Morning America, Craig Fugate, head of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, said people as far north as New England should be ready for the storm.

When asked about concerns preparing the Northeast for a hurricane, which is uncommon in that part of the country, Fugate cited Tuesday's earthquake that rattled the East Coast.

"It's a reminder that we don't always get to pick the next disaster," Fugate said.

In North Carolina, the state-run ferry service off Ocracoke Island would be free during the evacuation, but no reservations were allowed. Boats can carry no more than 50 vehicles at a time.

The island is part of North Carolina's Outer Banks, a roughly 300-km stretch of fragile barrier islands off the state's coast.

Pristine beaches and wild mustangs attract thousands of tourists each year. Aside from Ocracoke, the other islands are accessible by bridges to the mainland and ferries. The limited access can make the evacuation particularly tense.

All the barrier islands have the geographic weakness of jutting out into the Atlantic like the side-view mirror of a car, a location that's frequently been in the path of destructive storms over the decades.

Many remember 1999's Hurricane Floyd, which made landfall as a Category 2 and caused a storm surge that wiped out scores of houses and other properties on the Outer Banks.

As of 8 a.m. ET Wednesday, Irene was centred about 540 km southeast of Nassau in the Bahamas and was moving west-northwest near 15 km/h.
People walk on the road between Gonaives and Cap Haitien under the rain from the outer bands of Hurricane Irene in Haiti on Tuesday. ((Ramon Espinosa/Associated Press))

It had already wrought destruction across the Caribbean, giving a glimpse of what the storm might bring to the Eastern Seaboard. In Puerto Rico, tens of thousands of people were without power, and one woman died after trying to cross a swollen river in her car. At least hundreds were displaced by flooding in the Dominican Republic, forced to take refuge in schools and churches.

CBC meteorologist Johanna Wagstaffe, who has been following the hurricane's path, says the worst of the wind-driven storm surge is probably still to come.

On Wednesday, notifications she receives from Storm Caribbean, a network of weather watchers across the Caribbean, included that "Irene has been pounding us for a good while now, but within the last hour,  she seems to have brought her full force with heavy rain and strong wind and gusts."

Forecasters are warning things could get worse: The storm was likely to strengthen into a Category 4 monster by the time it makes landfall in the U.S. this weekend. Irene could crawl up the coast Sunday toward the Northeast region, where residents aren't accustomed to such storms.

Jeanne last major hurricane

It's been more seven years since a major hurricane, considered a Category 3 with winds of at least 179 km/h, hit the East Coast. Hurricane Jeanne came ashore on Florida's east coast in 2004.

On North Carolina's mainland, residents who have weathered years of storms took notice. People flocked to gas stations and stores to stock up on supplies like gasoline for generators, plywood for boarding up windows, flashlights, batteries and drinking water.
A ferry from Ocracoke Island arrives in Hatteras, N.C., on Wednesday to help evacuate people from the island as Hurricane Irene approaches the Carolinas and the East Coast. ((Gerry Broome/Associated Press))

In the coastal city of Wilmington, Tommy Early watched Tuesday as customers came in to his Shell service station to prepare. Irene was the main topic of conversation there, and Early was getting ready to give the hurricane its rightful place in a thick yellow notebook, even if it takes a turn out to sea. For years, Early has tracked names, wind speeds, rainfall and other data from storms that are nearly as familiar there as beach-loving tourists.

"Hurricane Earl," Early said Tuesday, looking up the entry for the storm that narrowly missed North Carolina last year.

Evacuations also were ordered last year ahead of Earl. "That was a Category 4 at one point. One hundred and sixty-mile-an hour winds. We got lucky that time."

The last hurricane to hit the U.S. was Ike in 2008. The last Category 3 or higher to hit the Carolinas was Bonnie in 1998, but caused less damage than other memorable hurricanes: Hugo in 1989, Floyd in 1999 and Isabel in 2003.

Though a Category 2, Isabel cut a new inlet through Hatteras Island and killed 33 people.

With files from CBC News