Tropical Storm Irene barrels toward Puerto Rico

August 21, 2011 - 4:05 PM

PATILLAS, Puerto Rico (AP) — Tropical Storm Irene barreled toward Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands on Sunday, packing heavy rains and winds that closed airports and flooded low-lying areas in the Leeward Islands.

The fast-moving storm, tracking west-northwest at roughly 18 mph (30 kph), was taking an unpredictable path that left people in the islands of the U.S. Caribbean anxious about the winds and rain to come.

On its current forecast track, the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said Irene was expected to pass near or over the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico later in the day. It's expected to strengthen into a hurricane on Monday as it approaches Hispaniola, the island shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti. More than 600,000 people in Haiti still live without shelter after last year's earthquake.

Strong winds and battering rain were expected late Sunday over Puerto Rico, including its outlying islands of Vieques and Culebra. U.S. forecasters had earlier expected the storm's center to pass just south of Puerto Rico's southern coast, but now said it could pass over the island of nearly 4 million inhabitants.

"The storm is wobbling a little bit. It is moving more to the west-northwest than we anticipated earlier," said Cristina Forbes, an oceanographer at the center. Sustained winds must reach 74 mph (119 kph) for the storm to be classified as a hurricane.

Most forecasts have Irene hitting southern Florida by the end of the week.

By Sunday afternoon, Irene was about 185 miles (300 kilometers) east-southeast of the southern Puerto Rican city of Ponce, where most businesses were closed and some homeowners were putting storm shutters on their windows.

Edgar Morales, owner of a roadside food stall in southeastern Puerto Rico, was one of the few business owners who opened Sunday despite the approaching storm.

"We're going to stay open until God allows it," said Morales, 35, who scanned TV news about the tropical storm with some of his customers.

In advance of Irene, Puerto Rican authorities urged islanders to secure their homes and pick up debris that high winds could turn into dangerous projectiles. Maritime officials advised people to stay away from the ocean because Irene could bring a dangerous storm surge to the coast.

"I strongly recommend that swimmers and recreational boaters avoid the ocean and that the general public stay away from shoreline rocks until the tropical storm passes and weather and surf conditions normalize," said Capt. Drew Pearson, a U.S. Coast Guard commander.

The Coast Guard closed the port in St. Croix, the largest and poorest of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Early Sunday, the storm churned up rough surf along a group of small islands in the eastern Caribbean that includes Antigua & Barbuda, St. Kitts & Nevis, Guadeloupe, and St. Maarten.

The storm caused some flooding in low-lying areas, and several countries and territories reported scattered power outages, but there were no immediate reports of serious damage or injuries. The storm was expected to dump up to 7 inches (18 centimeters) of rain on the islands.

"We are hoping that it won't be too bad for us because we just can't take this storm," said James Henry, a fisherman on the island of Dominica who braved a gusty squall early Sunday to pull his small boat ashore.

In Antigua, the airport authority closed the V.C. Bird International Airport during the storm's passage. The tiny country of St. Kitts also closed its airport, stranding travelers who had hoped to beat the storm.

By Sunday afternoon, the government of Antigua and Barbuda discontinued a tropical storm warning for the island nation as well as for Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, and Anguilla.

Forecasters said tropical storm force winds extended outward up to 150 miles (240 kilometers), mainly to the north of Irene's center.

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Associated Press writers Anika Kentish in St. John's, Antigua, and Carlisle Jno Baptiste in Roseau, Dominica contributed to this report.