Hurricane Irene slams Puerto Rico; could hit U.S.
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Puerto Ricans awoke to flooded and debris-strewn streets Monday following the overnight passage of Hurricane Irene, which next took aim at the Dominican Republic on a path that could take the storm to the U.S. by the end of the week.
The storm flooded streets, knocked down trees throughout the island, caused several rivers to overflow their banks and left more than a million Puerto Ricans without power. But there were no immediate reports of any deaths.
Remnants of Irene were expected to continue lashing the island most of Monday, said Jose Alamo, a U.S. National Weather Service meteorologist in San Juan.
"We're still receiving rain and some wind associated with the system but it should start to get better as the day goes on," Alamo said.
Forecasters earlier said Irene was likely to pass south of Puerto Rico, but the storm shifted north and was passed directly over the U.S. island territory overnight.
By Monday morning, Hurricane Irene was moving west-northwest away from Puerto Rico at roughly 14 mph (22 kph) with maximum sustained winds near 75 mph (120 kph). Irene's center was about 55 miles (90 kilometers) west-northwest of San Juan, Puerto Rico.
After moving over Puerto Rico, Irene was expected to approach Hispaniola, the island shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Nearly 600,000 people in Haiti still live without shelter after last year's earthquake.
In the U.S., Irene, the first hurricane of the Atlantic hurricane season, was expected to affect Florida later in the week and could clip Georgia and the Carolinas.
In Florida, Broward County emergency officials were keeping an eye on Irene and had already begun preparations Monday. Emergency management director Chuck Lanza said staff would soon begin calling roughly 1,000 people, including elderly and disabled residents, listed on their special needs registry to assess what kind of help they'll need if Irene hits South Florida.
In San Juan, dozens of people sought emergency shelter ahead of Irene, which was expected to dump up to 10 inches (25 centimeters) of rain in Puerto Rico. People also took shelter on the outlying islands of Culebra and Vieques, where authorities evacuated 150 tourists as the storm approached.
Maria Antonia Ordonez, 59, said she secured the shutters of her house in historic Old San Juan after inviting neighbors over for dinner and wine.
"You can hear the wind, the gusts are relentless," she said. "I can't see anything because I've closed everything."
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said the main impediment to the storm's progress over the next couple of days will be interaction with land. If Irene passes over Hispaniola's mountains or over parts of eastern Cuba, the storm could weaken more than currently expected.
"However, if the system ends up moving to the north of both of those land masses it could strengthen more than expected," wrote forecaster Richard Pasch.
In the Dominican Republic, officials assured residents they had food available for 1.5 million people if needed. Also, soldiers and emergency management crews evacuated dozens of residents from high-risk areas along the southern coast.
"We have taken all precautions," presidential spokesman Rafael Nunez said.
Many stores in the capital of Santo Domingo closed Sunday even as people bought last-minute items like flashlights.
The hurricane center's current forecast has Irene hitting southern Florida as a hurricane by Thursday.