Thursday to prove decisive for Hurricane Irene's trajectory

August 24, 2011 

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S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley said Wednesday the state plans no evacuations in advance of Hurricane Irene as projections continue to show the big, powerful storm missing the state.

Haley and county emergency management officials said they are poised to react quickly if the storm changes course and threatens the coast and urged residents to keep an eye on it, too.

Irene's maximum sustained winds increased to 120 mph Wednesday with additional strengthening expected overnight and on Thursday, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. The storm's winds are expected to increase to 135 mph today, racheting it up to a Category 4 hurricane.

Forecasters in Charleston said Thursday will be a telling day for Irene. The hurricane is expected to turn north, but a move one way or the other could make big difference for the Lowcountry, said meteorologist John Quagliariello.

"Most of the models show it moving a good distance off the coast -- about 250 miles off the Beaufort County coast -- and the projections are similar, which is reassuring," Quagliariello said. "We've got some more confidence in the models, but until it passes it's something we need to keep on eye on."

Chances of tropical storm force winds in the Lowcountry this weekend are low, but forecasters do anticipate high surf, possible beach erosion and potential for coastal flooding, as well as a higher risk for rip currents, he said.

Conditions will likely be rough for swimming Friday into Saturday, Quagliariello said. Sunday should be better.

Todd Ferguson, director of emergency management for Beaufort County, said the threat posed by Irene "is still there, albeit it's still low."

The Hilton Head Island Farmers Market at Honey Horn, normally held Friday, was canceled Wednesday due to the prediction of high winds and heavy rain, manager Pamela Ovens said.

Farther up the coast, in Hatteras, N.C, tourists began evacuating Wednesday as Irene strengthened. The first ferry to leave Ocracoke Island in North Carolina arrived just before 5:30 a.m. in nearby Hatteras with around a dozen cars on board.

The 16-mile-long barrier island is accessible only by ferry boats that carry no more than 50 cars. It is home to about 800 year-round residents and a tourist population that swells into the thousands when vacationers rent rooms and cottages.

In the Caribbean, tourists scurried from hotels in the Bahamian capital of Nassau to catch flights off the island before the airport's afternoon closure. In Puerto Rico, already hit by Irene, tens of thousands were without power, and one woman died after trying to cross a swollen river in her car. Hundreds were displaced by flooding in the Dominican Republic, forced to take refuge in schools and churches.

In the U.S., officials as far north as Rhode Island and Massachusetts prepared for the storm.

Irene could cause flooding, power outages or worse all along the East Coast as far north as Maine, even if it stays offshore, according to federal officials.

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. Asked about concerns preparing the Northeast for a hurricane, which is uncommon there, 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. During a conference call Wednesday, he also urged people to listen to local officials, saying that many times "evacuation orders are given when the skies are blue."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Follow staff writer Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead.

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