The United States put its eastern seaboard on alert for Hurricane Irene on Tuesday, as the powerful storm barreled up from the Caribbean on a path that could hit the US coast on the weekend.
Even as the first hurricane of the 2011 Atlantic season pounded the Turks and Caicos Islands and the southeast Bahamas with winds, rain and a dangerous storm surge, coastal residents in the Carolinas were preparing for Irene's approach.
"I pray God's blessing on us all," Bahamas prime minister Hubert Ingraham said as he urged residents of his Atlantic archipelago nation southeast of Florida to take shelter.
Irene is the ninth named storm of the busy June-through-November season and has already been blamed for one death in Puerto Rico. It looks set to be the first hurricane to hit the United States since Ike pounded the Texas coast in 2008.
Forecasts showed Irene posing no threat to US oil and gas installations in the Gulf of Mexico.
Irene weakened on Tuesday to a Category 1 hurricane on the five-step Saffir Simpson scale of intensity but could strengthen into a major Category 3 storm with winds over 111 miles per hour (178 km per hour) by Thursday, US National Hurricane Center forecasters said.
While warning the entire US East Coast to be on the alert, Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Craig Fugate and National Hurricane Center director Bill Read said it was too early to be certain where Irene would directly hit the coastline.
"We're going to have a very large tropical cyclone move up the eastern seaboard over the next five to seven days," Read said on a conference call with Fugate.
Irene was forecast to approach the coast of the Carolinas on Saturday morning as a major storm of Category 3 or upward, Read said.
After that, the already saturated New England region could be at risk from torrential rains, high winds and flooding from Irene, Fugate said. Major eastern cities like Washington and New York could feel some impact, the forecast indicated.
In a separate development, a magnitude 5.8 earthquake struck the US East Coast on Tuesday, shaking Washington, New York and other cities.
Irene could put a damper on Sunday's dedication ceremony for the new memorial honoring civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. on Washington's National Mall. Tens of thousands of people, including President Barack Obama, are expected to attend.
Salt Harvest Halted
Irene was heading west-northwest over the Turks and Caicos Islands and southeastern Bahamas.
At 11 pm (0300 GMT), it had top winds of 90 mph (145 kph) and was centered 410 miles (655 km) southeast of the Bahamian capital of Nassau. That was 980 miles (1,575 km) south-southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.
Forecasters warned a storm surge up to 11 feet (3.3 metres) high could wash over parts of the Bahamas.
Cruise lines Royal Caribbean and Carnival rearranged itineraries for more than a dozen ships in the region.
Morton Salt halted operations on Great Inagua because rain melts the salt cake in its crystallizers, leaving it unable to continue the salt harvest. The company temporarily laid off 100 workers this month after getting more than double the average rainfall in July.
"We are hoping and praying we don't get any more precipitation from this hurricane," said Glen Bannister, Morton Salt's managing director.
In North Carolina, Governor Bev Perdue urged residents to ensure they had three days worth of food, water and supplies.
Voluntary evacuations were to begin on Wednesday for parts of North Carolina's Outer Banks, the stretch of barrier islands and beaches jutting into the Atlantic Ocean. But Perdue cautioned that premature alarm could ruin the closing days of the coastal tourist season and said no final decision on evacuations would be made until Thursday.
"We don't want to over-alert anyone. We want to be safe. We always err on the side of safety. But until we know, we don't know," she said.
Irene could still swing farther east away from the US coast.
But if it skirts the Outer Banks without weakening and then plows northward through the heavily populated mid-Atlantic and New England coasts as a Category 1 or 2 hurricane, Irene "could become one of the ten most damaging hurricanes in history," hurricane expert Jeff Masters of private forecaster Weather Underground wrote in his blog.
Irene drenched the northeastern Caribbean islands earlier in the week. The first death from the storm was reported on Tuesday in Puerto Rico, where a woman was swept away while driving in a flooded road near the Loiza River in Carolina.
Heavy rains continued to pelt the US Caribbean territory, causing flooding and mudslides. Nearly 300,000 residents were without electricity, 58,000 were without water and preliminary estimates for agriculture losses were put at $17.8 million.