|Irene is the first hurricane of the Atlantic 2011 storm season. [NOAA via Getty Images]
Irene moved up another strength level on Monday night to become a category two hurricane. Forecasters initially thought that the storm wouldn’t increase in intensity until later in the week, but the changing track has given Irene more time over the warm waters, which is one of the ingredients to its development.
As a tropical storm on Sunday, Irene moved through Puerto Rico. Nearly 800 people had sought refuge at emergency shelters as the storm passed. There were no reports of deaths or major injuries. But 800,000 people, half of the island's electricity customers, were left without power.
Governor Luis Fortuno said the worst-hit area was the east coast, from Fajardo to Yabucoa, and he had asked the US government to declare Puerto Rico a disaster area so it can gain access to emergency funds.
Currently, the centre of the storm is located approximately 50kms to the north the Dominican Republic. The storm itself is huge, with a diameter of 1,100kms from north to south.
Hurricane Irene is forecast to continue to move northwest and strengthen. By Wednesday evening Irene is expected to be over the Turks and Caicos Islands with winds averaging 190 kms per hour. With strong winds and very heavy rainfall of up to 250 millimetres in a 24-hour period, coastal storm surge of three to four metres is expected.
These events will continue to play out over the next several days as Hurricane Irene continues its path through the Bahamas and eventually closes in on the eastern seaboard of the United States. Current forecast models are topping the hurricane’s intensity off at a category four storm on Friday morning, just as it exits the northernmost islands of the Bahamas.
Residents and tourists in these islands are strongly urged to prepare for catastrophic damage; listen to the local broadcasts and know where local shelters are located. If possible, change travel plans in order to avoid extended power outages throughout the region, as well as limited access to food and water.
Irene is the first hurricane of the 2011 Atlantic hurricane season. If Irene continues its current track towards the United States' Carolina coast, it would be the first hurricane to make landfall since 2008.