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MIAMI — Hurricane Irene has churned into a stronger Category 2 storm and has cut a destructive path through the Caribbean as it heads toward the U.S. coast.
Forecasters at the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said Monday night that a hurricane hunter aircraft measured maximum sustained winds of 100 mph (155 kph).
The storm raked Puerto Rico with strong winds and rain. It is spinning just north of the Dominican Republic on a track that could carry it to the U.S. Southeast as a major storm by the end of the week.
The first hurricane of the Atlantic season was a large system. Irene is forecast to grow into a Category 3 hurricane with winds of 115 mph (184 kph) over the Bahamas on Thursday.
It could be that strong as it heads to the U.S. coast. It could perhaps land in Florida, Georgia or South Carolina.
Hurricane Irene cut a destructive path through the Caribbean on Monday, raking Puerto Rico with strong winds and rain and then skirting the Dominican Republic on a track that could carry it to the U.S. Southeast as a major storm by the end of the week.
Irene slashed directly across Puerto Rico, tearing up trees and knocking out power to more than a million people, then headed out to sea north of the Dominican Republic.
The first hurricane of the Atlantic season was a large system that could cause dangerous mudslides and floods in Dominican Republic, the U.S. National Hurricane center said. It was not expected to make a direct hit on neighboring Haiti, though that country could still see heavy rain from the storm.
Dominican officials said the government had emergency food available for 1.5 million people if needed and the country's military and public safety brigades were on alert. "We have taken all precautions," presidential spokesman Rafael Nunez said.
The Hurricane Center projected that Irene could grow into a Category 3 hurricane with winds of 115 mph (184 kph) over the Bahamas on Thursday. And it may carry that force northwest along Florida's Atlantic coast and toward a possible strike on South Carolina, though the forecasters warned that by the weekend, the storm's path could vary significantly from the current projection.
Florida residents were urged to ensure they had batteries, drinking water, food and other supplies.
"We must prepare for the worst and hope for the best," said Joe Martinez, chairman of the Miami-Dade County Commission.
Officials in Charleston, South Carolina, also warned residents to monitor Irene closely. It has been six years since a hurricane hit the South Carolina coast, said Joe Farmer of the state Emergency Management Division.
Police and civil protection officials in the Dominican Republic made their way along the beaches of the country's northern coast to warn people away from the surging sea. Resorts pulled up the umbrellas and lounge chairs as the storm made its way toward the country. At the Wyndham Tangerine, a hotel in the resort area of Sosua and Cabarete, the staff converted a conference room into a temporary storm refuge for 300 people, said deputy general manager Karen Gonzalez.
Jose Manuel Mendez, director of the country's Emergency Operations Center, said that only about 135 people were in public shelters, but that hundreds of others were staying with friends and family to avoid the storm, which was expected to drop as much as 14 inches (35 centimeters) at higher elevations.
The 100 tourists who booked an ocean-view room at a Puerto Plata resort were moved to another building on Monday for their safety, said Medardo Carrera, manager for VH Gran Ventana Beach Resort, and the hotel ordered its 450 guests to stay inside their rooms Monday night.
At the nearby Casa Colonial Beach & Spa, several tourists packed their bags and fled ahead of the storm, hoping to catch one of the last flights for Miami, said concierge Zadaliy Placido.
The hurricane earlier cut power to more than a million people in Puerto Rico, downing trees and flooding streets on Monday. There were no reports of deaths or major injuries on the island, but Gov. Luis Fortuno declared a state of emergency and urged people to stay indoors to avoid downed power lines, flooded streets and other hazards.
The hurricane was expected to pass near or over the Turks and Caicos Islands and the southeastern Bahamas on Tuesday.
Hurricane Irene centered about 50 miles (80 kilometers) north-northeast of Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic Monday afternoon and it was moving toward the west-northwest at 12 mph (19 kph). It had maximum sustained winds of about 80 mph (130 kph) with higher gusts, the Hurricane Center reported.
In Puerto Rico, 600 crews spread out across the island to repair toppled light poles, and the majority of customers were expected to have power by late Monday, power company spokesman Carlos Monroig said. Schools, most government offices and many businesses remained closed. Flights resumed at the international airport in San Juan by midmorning.
The storm entered through the southeast coastal town of Humacao, but emergency management regional director Orlando Diaz said the damage seemed to be less than he feared.
"We thought things were going to be a bit more tragic," he said. "I was surprised that we didn't see the amount of rain I expected."
Irene had previously drove through St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where more than half of the inhabitants are still without power, said Christine Lett, emergency management spokeswoman.
Associated Press writers Danica Coto and Ben Fox in San Juan, Ezequiel Abiu Lopez in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Kelli Kennedy in Miami and Bruce Smith in Charleston, South Carolina contributed to this report.