|Irene, the first hurricane of the 2011 Atlantic Hurricane Season has developed in the Caribbean.
The first hurricane of the 2011 Atlantic Hurricane Season has developed in the Caribbean.
Irene, the ninth storm of the season, developed over the Leeward Islands of Guadeloupe and Dominica and strengthened as it barrelled west towards Puerto Rico and Hispaniola.
As the storm crossed Puerto Rico, the winds topped 120kph, and Tropical Storm Irene was reclassified as Hurricane Irene; the Caribbean Islands began to prepare for the worst.
Before making landfall in Puerto Rico, the authorities identified the storm as potentially life-threatening. "We have to take this seriously," the Puerto Rico governor, Luis Fortuno, warned.
The ban on Sunday morning shopping was lifted so residents could stock-pile canned food and bottled water, and would not need to venture out in the storm.
Emergency shelters were opened and people in flood zones were urged to use them. People in secure houses were ordered to stay inside and stay off the roads until the storm had passed.
The hurricane flooded streets and caused rivers to overflow their banks, as it raged over the island. Winds brought down trees and left more than a million Puerto Ricans without power, but there were no immediate reports of any deaths.
Schools and government offices will now remain closed on Monday, whilst the clear-up operation is underway.
After hitting Puerto Rico, the hurricane is now heading towards Hispaniola, the south-eastern Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands. A hurricane warning has already been issued for the north coast of the Dominican Republic and although the storm is only a category one hurricane at the moment, there are concerns that it will strengthen in the next few days.
Hurricane Irene is a slow-moving storm, moving northwest at only 19 kph, which is not good news. The longer the storm is over an area, the more rain and damage it will cause. The hurricane is expected to swamp Hispaniola, the south-eastern Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands with 25cm of rain, and some spots could see up to 50cm. This will cause life-threatening flash-flooding and mudslides.
As the storm strengthens and the forecast worsens, the Dominican Republic and Haiti rush to make preparations for its impact. The ground here is already saturated after weeks of heavy rain, including tropical storm Emily, which caused flooding. Residents are being urged to evacuate areas which are vulnerable to flooding.
In the Dominican Republic, the government is on high alert, but the hurricane will be especially devastating for Haiti, which was hit by a devastating earthquake in January 2010.
Even now, 19 months after the quake, it is estimated that 600,000 people are still living in tented communities. These families are particularly vulnerable to severe weather and flooding.
The US embassy announced that the naval hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, which only arrived in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince on Thursday, would be forced to cease operations on Sunday and seek a safe haven until the storm passed.
An additional problem in Haiti is the deforestation. With the hillsides largely stripped bare of its forests, there is a far greater risk of mudslides and landslides, and even rains from a smaller tropical depression could prove fatal for many.
After clearing the island of Hispaniola, Hurricane Irene is expected to strengthen further as it barrels northwest.
The storm could be threatening Florida by the end of the week and residents across the south-eastern parts of the States are urged to keep a close eye on the storm's progress in the coming few days.