Hurricane Irene's a likely weekend visitor

Staff WriterAugust 24, 2011 

Editor's note: An article Wednesday about Hurricane Irene misspelled the last name of Bill Read, director of the National Hurricane Center.

Hurricane Irene is expected to arrive in North Carolina sometime Saturday, but whether it strikes a direct hit or a glancing blow is still uncertain.

Forecasters expect the storm to strengthen early Thursday, with sustained winds topping 111 mph, as it passes the Bahamas headed northwest. Forecasters expect it will curl north, but the exact path along the North Carolina coast is hard to predict, said Bill Read, National Hurricane Center director, on Tuesday.

Gov. Bev Perdue said it will be Thursday before forecasters have a good idea what kind of threat Irene poses to North Carolina. On Monday, National Weather Service forecasters thought the storm might come ashore near Charleston, S.C., but since then the expected track has shifted east, with some models showing the center of the storm remaining offshore.

"The track continues to change," Perdue said late Tuesday. "The bottom line is, none of us knows."

Read urged people not to focus exclusively on the expected center track of the storm, noting that tropical storm force winds extend 200 miles from the center.

"We're going to have a very large tropical cyclone move up the Eastern Seaboard," he said during a news conference. "The impacts could be widespread, depending on exactly where the center of the storm goes."

Flooding is possible

Even if the center remains offshore, heavy surf and rip currents will likely begin to churn the North Carolina coast Friday, said Nick Petro, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service's Raleigh office. Coastal flooding will be possible over the weekend, particularly on the north side of the storm.

Inland, Irene's soaking rains could be welcome in Eastern North Carolina, which has suffered from drought all summer. Just because it has been dry, though, doesn't mean there won't be flooding, Petro said.

"The soils can only handle so much at a time," he said.

Ocracoke is vulnerable

Perdue said the state will be ready for whatever Irene brings. National Guard troops have been placed on standby, she said, and emergency management officials are checking equipment and planning where to locate emergency supplies of food, water and other materials.

Officials in Ocracoke Island, the community most vulnerable to hurricanes, ordered visitors to leave today and told residents to be off by Thursday. Perdue said it's too soon to advise other coastal residents to leave. She also urged the media not to unnecessarily hurt the final days of the summer tourism season on the coast.

"We don't want to over-alert anyone," she said. "Until we know, we don't know."

richard.stradling@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4739

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