SANTO DOMINGO, Aug 23 – Hurricane Irene churned toward Haiti and the Dominican Republic, after forcing Oscar-winning actress Kate Winslet and Richard Branson’s relatives to flee the British tycoon’s Caribbean island home.
Winslet carried Branson’s 90-year-old mother Eve out of The Great House on Necker Island, in the British Virgin Islands, which the entrepreneur bought in the early 1980s, as a blaze sparked by lightning took hold in the early morning hours.
“She swept her up into her arms and got them out of the house as fast as possible,” Branson, who heads the Virgin Group conglomerate, told Britain’s ITV News.
The actress said, according to Branson, “it’s like being in a film set where you’re waiting for the words ‘cut’ but they just don’t come.” All escaped unharmed.
Irene, now forecast to strengthen in coming days, reached catergory two hurricane force as it surged towards the Dominican Republic.
In Puerto Rico, the first hurricane of the 2011 Atlantic season unleashed torrential rains and powerful gusts that downed trees and caused flooding in residential areas, leaving 800,000 people without electricity, 118,000 without water and over 770 others in shelters.
San Juan, the capital of the densely populated US commonwealth of about 4 million, was within 40 kilometers (25 miles) of the eye of the category one hurricane.
Classes were suspended and businesses shuttered in some areas, according to Puerto Rico Governor Luis Fortuno, who announced a state of emergency to mobilize aid from the US Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The center of Irene was about 130 miles (210 km) east of Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, and already lashing the north coast of mountainous Hispaniola island, the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic, later Monday.
It was forecast to next head near or over the Turks and Caicos Islands and the southeastern Bahamas on Tuesday, before passing near the Central Bahamas early Wednesday.
Irene was expected to strengthen further as it moves west-northwest at around 20 kilometers (13 miles) an hour, according to the NHC.
A hurricane warning was in effect for the north coast of the Dominican Republic and Haiti, an impoverished country that was devastated by a catastrophic earthquake in January 2010 that killed an estimated 225,000 people, and then afflicted by a cholera epidemic.
All of Haiti was under a tropical storm warning and authorities issued a red alert.
“Preventative measures are being taken to evacuate people in danger,” Haiti meteorological service chief Ronald Semelfort told AFP.
Haiti dodged a weather disaster earlier this month when it was brushed by Tropical Storm Emily, but Irene revived fears for the 300,000 people still living in makeshift camps.
The European Union’s humanitarian aid service announced $5.5 million to fund disaster preparation programs to benefit over a million Haitians, many of whom continue to live in shelters more than 1.5 years after the devastating 2010 earthquake.
The Dominican Republic set up 2,364 shelters as it braced for Irene, and ordered that vulnerable areas be evacuated and classes be suspended.
Evacuations were urged country’s northern coast, which was expected to endure the brunt of the storm as it brushed past the island.
A red alert — the highest — was issued for 23 provinces and the capital, while the other eight provinces were placed under yellow, or intermediate alert.
“We are ready for the storm and are taking our precautions,” said presidential spokesman Rafael Nunez.
The government gave instructions for over two million food rations to be distributed to soup kitchens, and ordered that small and medium vessels remain in port.
The storm was expected to dump up as much as another 15 centimeters (six inches) over most of northern Hispaniola and up to 25 centimeters (10 inches) over higher terrain.
Up to 25 centimeters of rainfall were also expected in the southeastern Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands.
“These rains could cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides in areas of steep terrain,” the US NHC center warned.
Residents in the southeastern Bahamas, were expecting to feel the effects early Tuesday, while the Bahamas National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) issued an advisory urging necessary precautions to secure property as well as persons.
A storm surge accompanied by “large and dangerous waves” was also forecast to raise water levels by up to 1.2 meters (four feet) above normal tide levels along the Dominican coast, and up to 1.8 meters (six feet) over the southeastern Bahamas and Turks and Caicos.
Irene was forecast to follow a track that could take it toward the US coast near the states of Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina later in the week, the NHC added.