Hurricane Irene pounds Puerto Rico, heads for Hispaniola

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 2:40 PM GMT on August 22, 2011

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Hurricane Irene strengthened into the season's first Atlantic hurricane at 5am EDT this morning as the eye moved over San Juan, Puerto Rico, and crossed into the ocean just north of the island. Overnight, Irene held its own as the eye passed over the most mountainous portion of Puerto Rico, the El Yunque region. Winds in the higher mountains likely reached Category 2 strength, 96 - 110 mph, according to measurements from the San Juan Terminal Doppler Radar, and the hurricane pounded the island with damaging winds and flooding rains, resulting in widespread tree damage and power failures that hit 800,000 people. The San Juan Airport recorded top winds of 41 mph, gusting to 55 mph, and 2.87" of rain, as of 9am AST. Tropical storm conditions affected the Virgin Islands, with St. Thomas recording sustained winds of 40 mph, gusting to 67 mph, and 4.03" of rain as of 6am AST today. At 7am EDT, the ship Horizon Trader measured sustained northeast winds of 69 mph and wave heights of 11.5 feet at 19°N, in the northern eyewall of Irene. Latest observations from an Air Force hurricane hunter aircraft indicate that Irene is slowly intensifying, with a central pressure of 989 mb observed at 9:42am EDT. The eyewall is not fully formed yet, with a gap on the south side. This gap will need to close off before the hurricane can undergo rapid intensification.


Figure 1. A direct hit: the center of Hurricane Irene passed directly over the Terminal Doppler Radar at San Juan, Puerto Rico between 4am and 5am AST this morning.

Track forecast for Irene
The computer models show good agreement that Irene will pass along the north coast of Hispaniola today, but just a slight wobble in Irene's track to take it farther offshore--or push it onshore, over the mountains--will have major impacts on the ultimate path and strength of the hurricane. A trough of low pressure is expected to move across the Eastern U.S. on Wednesday and Thursday, turning Irene more to the northwest by Wednesday. The timing and strength of this trough varies considerably from model to model, and will be critical in determining where and when Irene will turn to the north. Irene's strength will also matter--a stronger Irene is more likely to turn northward earlier. The most popular solution among the models is to take Irene to the northwest through the Bahamas on Wednesday and Thursday, then into the Southeast U.S. coast in South Carolina or North Carolina on Saturday. Irene would then travel up the mid-Atlantic coast, arriving near Long Island, New York on Monday morning as a strong tropical storm or Category 1 hurricane. One of the models proposing this solution is our best model, the ECMWF. However, we have two other of our very good models suggesting a landfall near Miami on Thursday night is likely (the GFDL and UKMET models.) NHC forecaster Stacy Stewart gave some good reasons in this morning's discussion to favor a track close to the east coast of Florida, but just offshore. Last years' worst performing major the model, the NOGAPS, predicts that Irene will pass out to sea, missing the Southeast U.S. coast. Keep in mind that the average error of a 4-day forecast from NHC is 200 miles, and just a small deviation in the path of a storm moving roughly parallel to the coast will make a huge difference in where it ultimately makes landfall. The NOAA jet will be flying its first dropsonde mission into Irene today, which should result in a more reliable set of model runs first thing Tuesday morning.

Intensity forecast for Irene
Irene is embedded in a large envelope of moisture now, and wind shear is expected to remain low, 5 - 10 knots, for the next five days. With water temperatures very warm, 29 - 30°C, these conditions should allow for intensification except when land is interfering. Satellite loops show that Irene is steadily growing in size, which will protect the storm against major disruption by its passage along the north shore of Hispaniola today. The storm is lacking much development on its southwest side, where dry air is interfering with development. This dry air may help keep southern portions of the Dominican Republic and Haiti from receiving more than 3 - 6 inches of rain. There is at least a 30% chance that passage of the eye over Hispaniola will reduce Irene to a tropical storm tonight and into Tuesday. Due to Hispaniola blocking inflow of moist air from the south, Irene will likely compensate by building an even larger region of heavy thunderstorms to the north, offshore. Thus, when Irene's center finally moves well away from the coast on Tuesday, it will be a bigger storm, with the potential to spread hurricane conditions over a wider area later in the week when it intensifies. One limiting factor for intensification may be in the upper-level outflow pattern. The hurricane is lifting a huge amount of air from the surface to the upper atmosphere, and all that mass has to be efficiently transported away in order for the hurricane to intensify. Right now, upper level outflow is only well-established to the north and east, and the forecast outflow pattern for the coming five days is only moderately favorable. Overall, I think the official NHC forecast of a Category 3 hurricane by Thursday is the right one, though Irene could easily be a Category 2 or Category 4 storm.

Irene's impact on the Dominican Republic
Heavy rains from Irene have already reached the eastern tip of the Dominican Republic, where Punta Cana has seen wind gusts up to 29 mph this morning. The northeast coast of the country near Samana will receive the worst of Irene's wrath, with sustained winds of 50 - 70 mph and gusts above hurricane force likely to cause widespread tree damage and power outages today. Passage along the coast of the island may weaken Irene to a tropical storm by Tuesday morning, and wind damage in Puerto Plata may be less severe than at Samana. The capital of Santo Domingo will see lesser winds, perhaps 30 - 50 mph, with gusts to 60 mph. The main danger to the Dominican Republic will be Irene's torrential rains, which are likely to reach 20 inches in some mountainous regions, causing dangerous flash floods and mudslides.

Irene's impact on Haiti
No nation in the Caribbean is more vulnerable to hurricanes than Haiti, whose northern reaches are expected to receive torrential rains of 5 - 10 inches from Irene. During the 2008 hurricane season, four storms--Fay, Gustav, Hanna, and Ike--dumped heavy rains on Haiti, leaving over 1,000 people dead or missing. The path and intensity of Hurricane Irene are very similar to that of Hurricane Jeanne of 2004, which dumped 13 inches of rains on the nation's northern mountains. The rugged hillsides, stripped bare of 98% of their forest cover thanks to deforestation, let flood waters rampage into large areas of the country, killing over 3000 people, mostly in the town of Gonaives, the nation's 4th largest city. Jeanne ranks as the 12th deadliest hurricane of all time on the list of the 30 most deadly Atlantic hurricanes, and Irene's rains are capable of causing a similar disaster. During 2004 and again this year, ocean temperatures off the coast of Haiti were 1 - 1.5°C above average, one of the top five values seen in the past 100 years. Since more water vapor evaporates into the air from record warm waters, the potential for devastating floods from hurricanes is much higher in these situations. However, satellite images of Jeanne show the storm had much more moisture on its south side when it hit Hispaniola than Irene currently has, so I am hopeful that Irene's rains will not be as intense as Jeanne's were.


Figure 2. Track of Hurricane Jeanne of 2004, which followed a path very similar to what is expected from Hurricane Irene along the north coast of Hispaniola. Irene is not going to do a big loop like Jeanne did, though.

As bad as the hurricanes of 2004 and 2008 were, the January 2010 earthquake was far worse. Up to 316,000 may have been killed, and the capital city of Port-Au-Prince was devastated, leaving over 1.5 million people living under tarps during the 2010 hurricane season. Fortunately, Hurricane Tomas missed making a direct hit on Haiti, and Haiti escaped major loss of life during the 2010 hurricane season. This year, approximately 595,000 Haitians still live underneath tarps outdoors thanks to the earthquake, and these unfortunate people will be at risk of being swept away by flash flooding from Irene's torrential rains. However, Port-Au-Prince lies to the south of where Irene's main rains will fall, and I doubt the earthquake refugee camps will suffer from a major flooding disaster.


Figure 3. Hospital admissions (black bars) and death rate in percent (red line) for Haiti's cholera epidemic of 2010 - 2011. The cholera epidemic surged out of control after Hurricane Tomas dumped heavy rains on Haiti on November 4, 2010, with hospitalizations increasing by a factor of three for over a month. Over 3% of all people who contracted cholera died after Tomas' rains. However, sanitation and medical care improved in the following months, and the death rate fell by a factor of five to 0.7% by the summer of 2011. Another surge in cholera cases occurred in June 2011, doubling after heavy rainy season rains occurred. Cholera deaths doubled during the surge, but the death rate remained constant at 0.7%. Image credit: Pan American Health Organization.

Another danger is that Irene's rains will worsen the cholera epidemic that surfaced after the earthquake. Cholera is a water-borne disease, and spreads readily after heavy rains. As of August 12, 2011, the 2010 - 2011 cholera epidemic had infected 419,000 Haitians, killing 5,968. After Hurricane Tomas passed on November 5, 2010, cholera cases exploded, with hospital admissions more than tripling for over a month. Similarly, heavy rains in June 2011 during the country's usual rainy season caused doubled cholera cases and deaths for several weeks. We can expect that Irene's rains will cause at least a doubling of cholera cases for a month or more. This will lead to several hundred additional cholera deaths, given the disease's 0.7% mortality rate this summer in Haiti (during June and July 2011, 95,212 cases were reported, with 626 deaths.) An increase in cholera deaths due to Irene's rains is also a concern in the Dominican Republic, where cholera has sickened 14,000 people and killed 92 as of the end of July.

Organizations Active in Haitian Relief Efforts:
Portlight disaster relief
Lambi Fund of Haiti
Haiti Hope Fund
Catholic Relief Services of Haiti

Links
For those of you wanting to know your odds of receiving hurricane force or tropical storm force winds, I recommend the NHC wind probability product.

Wunderground has detailed storm surge maps for the U.S. coast.

See my 2010 post, Haiti's tragic hurricane history.

An exceptionally active of hurricane season
Hurricane season is only one-third over, and we've already had almost a full years' activity already. Tropical Storm Irene is the 9th named storm this year, and an average season has just 10 - 11 named storms. Irene's formation date of August 20 ties 2011 with 1936 as the 2nd earliest date for formation of the season's 9th storm. Only 2005 was more active this early. However, the first eight storms of the year have done far less damage than is typical. All eight storms stayed below hurricane strength, making 2011 the first hurricane season since record keeping began in 1851 to have more than six consecutive tropical storms that did not reach hurricane strength. As I discussed in Friday's post, a major reason for this is the lack of vertical instability over the tropical Atlantic so far this year. We've had a large amount of dry, sinking air over the tropical Atlantic, and the usual amount of dry, dusty air from the Sahara, both helping to keep the atmosphere stable and stop this year's storms from intensifying into hurricanes. Hurricane activity typically ramps up big-time by August 20, with more than 80% of all the hurricanes and 65% of all the tropical storms occurring after that date. At our current pace, 2011 will become the second busiest Atlantic hurricane season on record, with 24 - 27 named storms. There are only 21 names in the list of names for a hurricane season, so we may have to break out the Greek alphabet again in late October this year, as occurred in 2005. Ironically, this was the last time the current set of names was used in the Atlantic, so 16 of this year's 21 names are repeats of 2005. I'm not too happy about seeing another hurricane season challenge the Hurricane Season of 2005 in any way, and let's hope we don't retire another five names this year, like occurred in 2005! With vertical instability much lower this year than in 2005, and that year having already seen one storm (Dennis) retired by this point in the season, I doubt that will happen, though.


Figure 4. The annual cycle of average hurricane frequency in the Atlantic. Historically, about 35% of all the tropical storms and 15% of all the hurricanes will have occurred by August 20.

Which model should you trust?
Wunderground provides a web page with computer model forecasts for many of the best-performing models used to predict hurricane tracks. So which is the best? Well, the best forecasts are made by combining the forecasts from three or more models into a "consensus" forecast. Over the past decade, NHC has greatly improved their forecasts by relying on consensus forecast models made using various combinations of the GFS, GFDL, NOGAPS, UKMET, HWRF, and ECMWF models. If you average together the track forecasts from these models, the NHC official forecast will rarely depart much from it, and the NHC forecast has been hard to beat over the past few years. The single best-performing model over the past two years has been the ECMWF (European Center model). This model out-performed the official NHC forecast in 2010 for 1-day, 2-day, 3-day and 4-day forecasts, and in 2009 for 4-day and 5-day forecasts. You can view ECMWF forecasts on our wundermap with the model layer turned on. The European Center does not permit public display of tropical storm positions from their hurricane tracking module of their model, so we are unable to put ECMWF forecasts on our computer model forecast page that plots positions from the other major models. As seen in Figure 5, over the past two years, the GFS and GFDL model have been the next best models, with the UKMET model not far behind. Last year, the NOGAPS model did very poorly, forcing NHC to come up with some new consensus models this year, the TCOA and TVCA, that do not include the NOGAPS model. For those interested in learning more about the models, NOAA has a great training video (updated for 2011.)


Figure 5. Skill of computer model forecasts of Atlantic named storms 2010. OFCL=Official NHC forecast; GFS=Global Forecast System model; GFDL=Geophysical Fluid Dynamic Laboratory model; HWRF=Hurricane Weather Research Forecasting model; NOGAPS=Navy Operational Global Prediction System model; UKMET=United Kingdom Met Office model; ECMWF=European Center for Medium Range Weather Forecasting model; TVCN=one of the consensus models that lends together all (or most) of the above models. Image credit: National Hurricane Center 2010 verification report.

Next post
There will be 2 - 3 posts per day in my blog this week during Irene, with Angela Fritz and Rob Carver doing some of the afternoon and evening posts.

Jeff Masters

Tropical Storm Irene hits Puerto Rico (lobdellJ)
Tropical Storm Irene hits the north coast of Puerto Rico
Tropical Storm Irene hits Puerto Rico
Tropical Storm Irene from Maunabo, PR (ronmil)
The first bands or Irene approaching Maunabo, Puerto Rico (SE corner)...
Tropical Storm Irene from Maunabo, PR
Irene (reefchild)
Irene @OPkB OceanParkBeach Puerto Rico 7pm
Irene

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787. DFWjc
Does Guantanamo Bay have a weather radar?
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Quoting hydrus:
This would be catastrophic...


HWRF went west a bit on the 12Z run, no surprise there. Impact seems to be the greatest from Florida to South Carolina at this time. Gotta head out now, I'll be back home around midnight.
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Quoting AllStar17:
Projected major hurricane now.
That first "M" is right over New Providence...
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Quoting StormHype:
Classic Irene imagery:
Link



LOL
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Quoting sotv:
Richard Branson's home on Neckar Island (part of Virgin islands) destroyed by fire after being struck by lightning during tropical storm

Daily Telegraph

Sir Richard said: "We had a really bad tropical storm with winds up to 90mph. A big lightning storm came around 4am and hit the house.



Lightning during a hurricane? Hmmm... let's bring in the fire investigators.
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This is looking like potential bad news bears here in NC...potential track reminds me of bertha, fran, floyd...
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Quoting USAFwxguy:
Good gravy!



Afternoon USAF, good to see ya.

When you post these graphics, would you mind throwing HWRF or GFDL at the top so we know which one it is? TIA!
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So im starting to worry here, shopping today for all the needed supplies. :(
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778. DFWjc
Quoting quakeman55:

Indeed. I'm thinking they may maintain the status quo for the 1PM (CDT) advisory since the HH are still sampling the storm, but it may jump up to 85-90MPH by the 4PM (CDT) advisory. Just my thoughts...


I guess the fun of it, is the time of uncertainty where it will go, how powerful it is, then when it hits...WTF dude, wow, hope "they" are ok...
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Quoting thedawnawakening3:


If I remember correctly Katrina was a major problem. It was not just the levees, because if it was just the levees than Gustav could have been brought the same devastation correct? So it had a lot to do with What Katrina was. Hurricane Katrina was a category five hurricane over the central GOM, was she not? Hurricane Katrina weakened to a category three hurricane as she passed over or just east of NOLA, correct? Therefore she brought onshore a category five hurricane strength storm surge, correct? Therefore the category five strength surge and the levees had a lot to do together with the devastaton in NOLA. DO not ever say a situation like that was do to the hurricane. On a normal day then the levees would have caved in correct then? Wrong, Katrina was the catalyst to bring the levees to their knees and showed us how inadequate the levees truly were. Technically NOLA dodged a bullet with Katrina, should have been a lot worse.

Whoa there! My point was that someone compared this storm to Katrina (and I'm understanding that they meant Katrina and the damage to NOLA). And NO....it won't be a Katrina as in what happened in New Orleans. Yes, Katrina caused alot of damage and was of course, a dangerous hurricane. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out, and I live in South Louisiana, but without the levees failing, the damage would not have been ANYWHERE near what it was. My point being, IF there are no huge levees to breach, where this hurricane goes ashore, then NO, it will NOT be the same as Katrina....not even close!! Now....as far as Mississippi, it had the worse damage from the hurricane and it was bad.....but Katrina and NOLA, NO!
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Quoting hydrus:
This would be catastrophic...


Holy moley.
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wow starting to look like one of the Weather channels"It could happen tomorrow" lets hope not
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Patrap, those are yesterday's models for 18Z right? look at the starting location...
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Quoting Seflhurricane:
Tropical storm watches are likely for the se fla coast tonight


I'll bite.

I think they just might go on and pull the trigger.

It's not like they're ordering evacuations or anything... at least it will raise people's awareness of what's on the way.

Forecast calls for "possible tropical storm conditions" so it sounds like it might be a watch to me.
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772. JRRP

now looks like wnw
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somes trying to follow the path emily made imo
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770. 7544
models shifting west again thanks pat
Member Since: May 6, 2007 Posts: 0 Comments: 6874
Quoting StormHype:


Dogged a bullet and got what... an RPG in the nuts instead? They always feared the western side of a big cane because that put high winds from the north over the lake, stressing the levees.... and that's what Katrina gave them.


No.

The worst case scenario is a hurricane that puts the highest winds over the Mississippi River. The high ground in new Orleans is along the river levees from Uptown all the way to the Quarter, not along the Lake Ponchartrain.
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Quoting MyrtleCanes:


have a condo in edisto, time to run down and board it up I guess, but I live in myrtle and need to do prep here too, ughh


if you're serious...I have some people who may be able to help at Edisto...WU mail me
Member Since: August 13, 2007 Posts: 0 Comments: 10492
Quoting quakeman55:

And who's to say it couldn't get that strong? All the juice and ingredients are there for this thing to become a freaking monster.

Just keep your eyes peeled very sharply on it.


Well, I guess it's possible, but it's really not likely.
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Quoting sotv:
Richard Branson's home on Neckar Island (part of Virgin islands) destroyed by fire after being struck by lightning during tropical storm

Daily Telegraph

Sir Richard said: "We had a really bad tropical storm with winds up to 90mph. A big lightning storm came around 4am and hit the house.



Poor Richard's habitat ?
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 428 Comments: 129841
Quoting DFWjc:


thanks as well, i was going to wait for that, but you how the blog is...NOW NOW NOW, LOL!

Indeed. I'm thinking they may maintain the status quo for the 1PM (CDT) advisory since the HH are still sampling the storm, but it may jump up to 85-90MPH by the 4PM (CDT) advisory. Just my thoughts...
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Irene has all the time in the world to do what she wants over the waters for days, and she will be the one that pulls the trigger, that is how bad she really wants to be, the ball is in her court...
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Quoting RyanFSU:
HWRF 12z still a major hurricane (920s mb)

Cat 5, no less. Nice... :-\
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Quoting Patrap:

18z Early Cycle NHC model tracks
Irene
Statistical/Simple Models (CLIPER,BAMs,LBAR,other Statistical Models)




Dynamic Models (More sophisticated models)








'Arf. Half of those dynamic models take it to Miami!
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Quoting Seflhurricane:
Tropical storm watches are likely for the se fla coast tonight

Really? I think IF they come out would be 5am or 11am tomorrow.
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Quoting tiggeriffic:


live 5 news is saying Edisto Beach...that is worse for us in the Charleston area...would rather have the eye than it hit to the south like that


have a condo in edisto, time to run down and board it up I guess, but I live in myrtle and need to do prep here too, ughh
Member Since: May 13, 2010 Posts: 0 Comments: 103
HWRF 12z still a major hurricane (920s mb)
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Quoting K8eCane:




I moved to Wilmington in 79. Shallotte and Holden Beach have grown astronomically since then. I do love the ( I still call it new) highrise bridge though. Wonder how it would do in a major cane?



and BTW I hope you enjoyed your stay. My Aunt owns a lil seafood hut near there called the Silver Hill Grill
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755. sotv
Richard Branson's home on Neckar Island (part of British Virgin islands) destroyed by fire after being struck by lightning during tropical storm

Daily Telegraph

Sir Richard said: "We had a really bad tropical storm with winds up to 90mph. A big lightning storm came around 4am and hit the house.

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Think the rise in pressure and drop in wind speed is due to the eyewall collapsing and reforming or the system is generally weakening?
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Tropical storm watches are likely for the se fla coast tonight
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750. DFWjc
Quoting quakeman55:

Pressure is down at least to 985mb so it's undoubtedly strengthening. Look for the winds to tick up in the next advisory or two.


thanks as well, i was going to wait for that, but you how the blog is...NOW NOW NOW, LOL!
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Looks like winds have dropped to 72mph based on the recon data.
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Quoting hydrus:
This would be catastrophic...


you're tellin' me
Member Since: August 13, 2007 Posts: 0 Comments: 10492
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 428 Comments: 129841
Please don't call this fun to watch. Perhaps challenging, difficult to forecast, but not fun. It just reinforces the wrong stereotypes of very talented amateur and professional weather enthusiasts and scientists. Fun? A little professional distance, please. PS I am not having any fun right now.
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Quoting CorneliaMarie:
Technically NOLA dodged a bullet with Katrina, should have been a lot worse.

I think many on here would disagree with that....


Dogged a bullet and got what... an RPG in the nuts instead? They always feared the western side of a big cane because that put high winds from the north over the lake, stressing the levees.... and that's what Katrina gave them.
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Quoting NICycloneChaser:


That would make it joint 14th most intense Atlantic Hurricane on record. Not entirely convinced lol

And who's to say it couldn't get that strong? All the juice and ingredients are there for this thing to become a freaking monster.

Just keep your eyes peeled very sharply on it.
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Quoting sdswwwe:
Based on HH data:

Jog to the west
Slight decrease in movement speed.
Pressure slightly higher by 1 mb


The vortex centre location is WNW of the previous one.
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This would be catastrophic...
Member Since: September 27, 2007 Posts: 1 Comments: 22618
This would make Ike, Katrina, Rita, Ivan, look like babies at landfall

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Pressure back up to 989MB.
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Look like Irene is headed for the Mountains of Hispaniola

Member Since: April 29, 2007 Posts: 0 Comments: 8134
while all the sportlight is on Irene , very little interst is shown in 98L. the system has gotten better organise this morning ,and could be a depression at this moment. if organisation continues at this pace ,we will soon have our tenth named storm.
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Quoting tropicfreak:


We vacationed there in 2004. Rented a house called Jeans Dreams.




I moved to Wilmington in 79. Shallotte and Holden Beach have grown astronomically since then. I do love the ( I still call it new) highrise bridge though. Wonder how it would do in a major cane?
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Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.

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