US officials ponder Irene evacuations

By Martha Waggoner

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Aug. 25 2011 4:27 a.m. MDT

Crew at Sunset Marina in West Ocean City, Md., lift a boat from the water on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2011 as Hurricane Irene strengthened to a Category 3 storm over the Bahamas. FEMA warned that residents of the East Coast as far north as Maine should be prepared, with coastal flooding and high winds that may cause power outages.

Salisbury Daily Times, Laura Emmons, Associated Press

HATTERAS, North Carolina — Hurricane Irene could hit the U.S. East Coast this weekend, leaving officials in the path of uncertainty to make a delicate decision. Should they tell tourists to leave during one of the last weeks of the multibillion-dollar summer season?

Most authorities were in a wait-and-see mode, holding out to get every dollar before the storm's path crystalizes. North Carolina's governor told reporters not to scare people away.

"You will never endanger your tourists, but you also don't want to over inflate the sense of urgency about the storm. And so let's just hang on," North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue said Wednesday. At the same time she warned to "prepare for the worst."

In the Bahamas early Thursday, the head of the National Emergency Management Agency said that at least two settlements were devastated on the southern islands of Acklins and Crooked. Capt. Stephen Russell says an official there reports that 90 percent of the homes in the settlements have been severely damaged or destroyed. Several hundred people live on each island. No injuries have been reported.

They were among the first to be hit Wednesday as the hurricane made its way up the chain. Tourists cut their vacations short and caught the last flights out before the airport was closed.

Irene has already hit Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, causing landslides and flooding homes. One woman was killed.

Irene could reach North Carolina's outer islands on Saturday afternoon with winds around 115 mph (185 kph). It's predicted to then chug up the coast, dumping rain as far north as New York City before petering out by Monday afternoon.

A hurricane watch was issued early Thursday for much of the North Carolina coast including the Outer Banks. A hurricane watch means hurricane conditions are possible within 36 hours. Also, a tropical storm watch was issued for much of South Carolina's coast.

Predicting the path of such a huge storm can be tricky, but the National Hurricane Center uses computer models to come up with a "cone of uncertainty," a three-day forecast that has become remarkably accurate in recent years.

A system currently over the Great Lakes will play a large role in determining if Irene is pushed farther to the east in the next three or four days.

Sandbags were in demand in the Northeast to protect already saturated grounds from flooding. Country music star Kenny Chesney moved a Sunday concert in Foxborough, Massachusetts, up to Friday to avoid the storm.

High school sporting events were also rescheduled, and officials still hadn't decided whether to postpone Sunday's dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial on the National Mall. Hundreds of thousands were expected for that event.

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