If Irene does move into the Mid-Atlantic area, it could threaten plans for dedicating a memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. Fugate said officials were discussing whether to hold Sunday's dedication ceremony. Tens of thousands are expected to attend the event at the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Irene had already wrought destruction across the Caribbean, giving a glimpse of what the storm might bring to the Eastern Seaboard. In Puerto Rico, more than a million people were without power, and President Barack Obama declared an emergency there. At least hundreds were displaced by flooding in the Dominican Republic, forced to take refuge in schools and churches.
Irene was making its way toward the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands on Tuesday. The prime minister of the Bahamas pleaded with islanders in low-lying areas to seek higher ground, and also urged people to stock up on water, food, flashlights, first aid kits and other supplies. On the Turks and Caicos Islands, residents were putting up hurricane shutters and tourists were retreating to their hotels.
On Tuesday afternoon, Irene was about 55 miles (90 kilometers) south of Grand Turk Island, moving west-northwest at 10 mph (16 kph). Its maximum sustained winds were at 100 mph (160 kph).
In South Carolina, emergency agencies went on alert for what could be the first hurricane to hit there in seven years.
"This is potentially a very serious hurricane," longtime Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. said. He led Charleston's recovery from the massive destruction of Hurricane Hugo's 135 mph winds and waves back in 1989.
It's been more than a century since Georgia has taken a direct hit from a Category 3 storm or greater. That was in 1893, and the last hurricane to make landfall along the state's 100-mile coast was David, which caused only minor damage when it struck in 1979.
On Tybee Island, Ga., 18 miles east of Savannah, officials planned to be on the lookout for fierce rip currents and heavy surf from Irene. Mayor Jason Buelterman said it was possible lifeguards might close the water to swimmers and surfers. On Jekyll Island, about 60 miles south of Savannah, officials were watching forecasts in case measures were needed to protect historic buildings. Among them are sprawling "cottages" built by the likes of William Rockefeller and other wealthy industrialists in the late 1800s.
If Irene makes it as a major storm to New England, Read drew comparisons to a huge 1938 hurricane that also approached from the South and killed 682 people.
"We're very concerned about what's going to happen in New England," Read said.
Irene could bring much-needed relief to a fire blazing in the Great Dismal Swamp on the North Carolina-Virginia line, however. If the storm stays on its current track, it could soak the smoldering fire that's consumed more than 9 square miles of swamp in both states.
Associated Press writers Ezequiel Abiu Lopez in Nagua, Dominican Republic, Gary Fineout in Tallahassee, Tom Breen in Wrightsville Beach, N.C., Martha Waggoner and Michael Biesecker in Raleigh, N.C., and Bruce Smith in Charleston, S.C., contributed to this report.
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