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, moving west-northwest at roughly 17 mph (28 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 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.
Late Sunday afternoon, Irene’s center was some 25 miles (40 kilometers) east of St. Croix, the largest and poorest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, and about 120 miles (195 kilometers) east-southeast of Puerto Rico’s capital of San Juan.
Puerto Rico’s main airport was swamped with people, the usual Sunday crowds combined with people rushing to get off the island before the storm or stranded because flights to a number of other islands had been canceled. There were long lines at check-in counters and at the airport hotel.
Jenny Chappell of Richmond, Virginia, returning from a weeklong business trip in Puerto Rico, was among those booking a room at the airport hotel, assuming that her 1 a.m. flight, at the height of the storm, would be canceled.
“My friend told me get a room, get some water, get some snacks because if anything goes down you’ll need it,” Chappell said.
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.
In the U.S. Virgin Islands, Gov. John deJongh declared a state of emergency in order to impose storm curfews. Emergency shelters were opened on St. Croix, where the port was closed.
In the southeastern Puerto Rican town of Patillas, Edgar Morales, owner of a roadside food stall, 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.
Jose Rivas, 46, said he woke up early Sunday to place storm shutters on his house, fill his car with gas and take out money. He said he and his wife along with their two sons will spend the night at a hotel next to their house in Patillas.
“We’ll leave as soon as the sea starts rising,” he said.
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 National Hurricane Center said the main impediment to the storm’s progress over the next couple of days will be interaction with land. If Irene passes over Hispaniola’s mountains or over parts of eastern Cuba, the storm could weaken more than currently expected.
“However, if the system ends up moving to the north of both of those land masses it could strengthen more than expected,” wrote forecaster Richard Pasch.
The center’s current forecast has Irene hitting southern Florida as a hurricane by Thursday.
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.
Forecasters said tropical storm force winds extended outward up to 150 miles (240 kilometers), mainly to the north of Irene’s center.
Associated Press writers Ben Fox in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Anika Kentish in St. John’s, Antigua, and Carlisle Jno Baptiste in Roseau, Dominica contributed to this report.