US officials ponder Irene evacuations

Associated Press
People arrive at Cape Hatteras ferry terminal in Cape Hatteras. N.C. on Wednesday, Aug. 24,  2011. Evacuations began on the tiny barrier island of Ocracoke Island off North Carolina as Hurricane Irene strengthened to a major Category 3 storm over the Bahamas on Wednesday with the East Coast in its sights.   (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

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HATTERAS, North Carolina (AP) — Hurricane Irene could hit anywhere along the East Coast this weekend, leaving officials in the path of uncertainty to make a delicate decision. Should they tell tourists to leave during one of the last weeks of the multibillion-dollar summer season?

Most were in a wait-and-see mode, holding out to get every dollar before the storm's path crystalizes. North Carolina's governor told reporters not to scare people away.

"You will never endanger your tourists, but you also don't want to over inflate the sense of urgency about the storm. And so let's just hang on," North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue said Wednesday. At the same time she warned to "prepare for the worst."

In the Bahamas early Thursday, the head of the National Emergency Management Agency says that at least two settlements have been devastated on the southern islands of Acklins and Crooked. Capt. Stephen Russell says an official there reports that 90 percent of the homes in the settlements have been severely damaged or destroyed. Several hundred people live on each island. No injuries have been reported.

They were among the first to be hit Wednesday as the hurricane made its way up the chain. Tourists cut their vacations short and caught the last flights out before the airport was closed.

Irene has already hit Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, causing landslides and flooding homes. One woman was killed.

In the southern state of North Carolina, some tourists heeded evacuation orders for a tiny barrier island as Irene strengthened to a Category 3 storm, with winds of 120 mph (193 kph).

By Thursday, that could intensify to a monstrous Category 4 hurricane with winds starting at 131 mph (210 kph).

Officials said Irene could cause flooding, power outages or worse as far north as Maine, even if the eye of the storm stays offshore. Hurricane-force winds were expected 50 miles (80 kilometers) from the center of the storm.

Predicting the path of such a huge storm can be tricky, but the National Hurricane Center uses computer models to come up with a "cone of uncertainty," a three-day forecast that has become remarkably accurate in recent years. Forecasters are still about a day away from the cone reaching the East Coast. A system currently over the Great Lakes will play a large role in determining if Irene is pushed farther to the east in the next three or four days.

Sandbags were in demand in the Northeast to protect already saturated grounds from flooding. Country music star Kenny Chesney moved a Sunday concert in Foxborough, Massachusetts, up to Friday to avoid the storm. High school football games were also rescheduled, and officials still hadn't decided whether to postpone Sunday's dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial on the National Mall. Hundreds of thousands were expected for that event.

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