A strengthening Hurricane Irene eased away from the northwestern Caribbean on Monday, leaving nearly one million people in the dark in Puerto Rico, a billionaire’s mansion torched by lightning in the British Virgin Islands and fears of a dark night of drenching rain and floods across Hispaniola.
Unfortunately, that appeared to be only a warm-up for worse.
At 8 p.m, National Hurricane Center reported Irene’s sustained winds had jumped to 100 mph, Category 2 level. Over the next few days, forecasters expect the storm to grow more dangerous and damaging, on track to rake the Bahamas from bottom to top as it intensifies into a major Category 3 hurricane by Thursday afternoon. At that point, the official forecast track would put Irene — potentially churning 115 mph winds — near Andros Island and about 130 miles southeast of Miami and Fort Lauderdale.
That was still too close, and Irene was shaping up as too powerful, for forecasters to pronounce any part of the South Atlantic coast out of the woods. South Florida remained in the cone of probability, though trends in computer models suggested the threat was lessening here and increasing for the Carolinas.
Dennis Feltgen, a spokesman for the hurricane center, said Irene’s projected path paralleling the Florida coast meant that a slight wobble or delay in an expected northward turn could push the powerful core from offshore onto a densely developed shoreline.
“The stakes are high because it would take just a slight shift in the track to the left to make a dramatic change in the impact of the storm in a hugely populated area,’’ he said.
The impact could be serious wherever Irene makes landfall. With little but warm water and favorable winds in its path, forecasters expected the storm to steadily intensify. Along with gusts and heavy rains, Irene also will be pushing a five- to eight-foot storm surge into the southeastern Bahamas that could reach seven to 11 feet by the time it reaches the Central Bahamas.
Even as a tropical storm, Irene proved damaging. There were no immediate reports of deaths or injuries in the northwestern Caribbean, but its passage across Puerto Rico plunged half the island into darkness.
Things began returning to normal in Puerto Rico late in the day, with San Juan’s major shopping mall reopening, but dozens of roads remained impassable and several communities were flooded or cut off. At least three rivers had burst their banks. The Plata River was most worrisome, authorities said.
“As long as it is still raining in the mountains, we’re still worried,” Gov. Luis Fortuño told El Nuevo Día newspaper.
Puerto Rico Emergency operations director Mauricio Rivera told The Miami Herald that by late Monday afternoon, more than half the island still had no electricity and 28 percent of the population was without running water. The island of Vieques remained completely without power.
“I call what we had an ‘almost-hurricane,’ ” Rivera said. “It brought a lot of rain, a lot of wind, and quite a few electrical poles fell and so did trees. The situation is returning to normal. It’s raining, but mostly just drizzling.’’
Still, callers bombarded local radio stations with complaints, reiterating that the island would not be prepared for a stronger storm.