HATTERAS, North Carolina » Hurricane Irene strengthened to a major Category 3 storm over the Bahamas on Wednesday with the East Coast in its sights.
Irene’s maximum sustained winds increased to near 115 mph with additional strengthening forecast, the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said.
Federal officials have warned Irene could cause flooding, power outages or worse all along the East Coast as far north as Maine, even if it stays offshore. The projected path has gradually shifted to the east, though Irene is still expected to make landfall as a major hurricane in North Carolina sometime over the weekend. It is then expected to continue trudging northward.
Speaking Wednesday on ABC’s "Good Morning America," Craig Fugate, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said people as far north as New England should be ready for the storm. When asked about concerns preparing the Northeast for a hurricane, which is uncommon in that part of the country, Fugate cited Tuesday’s earthquake that rattled the East Coast.
"It’s a reminder that we don’t always get to pick the next disaster," Fugate said.
Irene had already wrought destruction across the Caribbean, giving a glimpse of what the storm might bring to the Eastern Seaboard. In Puerto Rico, more than a million people were without power, and one woman died after trying to cross a swollen river in her car. At least hundreds were displaced by flooding in the Dominican Republic, forced to take refuge in schools and churches.
Forecasters warned it could get worse: The storm was likely to strengthen into a Category 4 monster by the time it makes landfall in the U.S. this weekend. Irene could crawl up the coast Sunday toward the Northeast region, where residents aren’t accustomed to such storms.
It’s been more seven years since a major hurricane, considered a Category 3 with winds of at least 111 mph, hit the East Coast. Hurricane Jeanne came ashore on Florida’s east coast in 2004.
The last hurricane to hit the U.S. was Ike in 2008. The last Category 3 or higher to hit the Carolinas was Bonnie in 1998, but caused less damage than other memorable hurricanes: Hugo in 1989, Floyd in 1999 and Isabel in 2003.
Though a Category 2, Isabel cut a new inlet through Hatteras Island and killed 33 people.