Irene destroys Necker and threatens Florida

With peak hurricane season approaching, the ninth named storm of 2011 – and the first to reach hurricane status – is wreaking chaos across the Caribbean.

Hurricane Irene left a trail of damage in the Virgin Islands while still a tropical storm – including the destruction of Sir Richard Branson’s home on Necker in the British Virgin Islands, which was ignited by a lightning strike. The Governor of the US Virgin Islands ordered a curfew for public safety, cruise ships in the area were diverted and yacht owners in the sailing hotspot advised to take all precautions. The USVIs experienced 25cm (10in) of rain while flash flood warnings remain in place in the BVIs.

As Irene moved westwards to Puerto Rico, where residents were warned the storm was potentially life-threatening, sustained winds passed the 74mph marker and she became a hurricane. A million homes on the US-administered island are without power and there are reports of flooding and mudslides, but no fatalities.

Now category 1 with sustained winds of 80mph, Irene is intensifying as she strengthens over the sea. The hurricane is on track to graze just north of the island of Hispaniola, on which 600,000 Haitians still remain homeless after January 2010’s devastating earthquake.

The low-lying Bahamas, which are next in line, have issued a hurricane warning.

Predictions have Irene’s most likely continental landfall as east central Florida, by early Friday, as a category 3 hurricane with sustained winds in excess of 111mph.

Image: NASA