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Irene threatens to become season's first hurricane

Lurching through the Caribbean Sea and along Puerto Rico on Sunday, Tropical Storm Irene threatened to end the longest string yet of storms failing to develop into hurricanes by becoming one today.

While Florida remained within the storm's cone of uncertainty for a late-week arrival, most forecasts late Sunday called for it to either come up the peninsula well east of the Tampa Bay area or in the Atlantic Ocean entirely.

Irene became more organized Sunday and forecasters expect it to become a hurricane today as it approaches Hispaniola, the island shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

Nearly 600,000 people in Haiti still live without shelter after last year's earthquake.

The National Hurricane Center, at least officially, calls for Irene to be a Category 1 hurricane as it nears South Florida on Thursday or Friday.

But just how strong it actually remains by the end of the week depends on many variables, including how it interacts with the island.

"If it goes over Hispaniola, it could easily weaken, and likely would," said Bay News 9 meteorologist Brian McClure.

He and his peers dub Hispaniola "the storm shredder" because of the mountainous island's history of sapping the strength of hurricanes and tropical storms.

Sustained winds must reach 74 mph for a storm to be classified as a hurricane. Irene had sustained winds of up to 60 mph Sunday, according to the National Hurricane Center. It was moving at about 15 mph.

If Irene takes a short path across Hispaniola and spends more time over warm water, it could remain a hurricane as it heads toward Florida, forecasters said.

A long path over Hispaniola or Cuba, however, could cause Irene to dissipate.

"When you're talking about a storm, even slight fluctuations can mean a world of a difference in what actually happens," said Josh Linker, another Bay News 9 meteorologist.

In any event, the storm is not expected to be east of Tampa Bay until Friday afternoon. Bay News 9 meteorologists forecast the weather here that day to be breezy with a 50 percent chance of rain.

Before Irene, there were eight tropical storms this season in the Atlantic that didn't grow into hurricanes. The previous known record for named storms not developing into hurricanes was set in 2002, when six named storms in a row failed develop into hurricanes.

Still a tropical storm as it approached Puerto Rico late Sunday night, Irene battered the island with strong winds and heavy rains.

U.S. forecasters earlier had expected the storm's center to pass just south of Puerto Rico's southern coast, but later said it would pass near or over the island of nearly 4 million inhabitants.

Tropical storm-force winds extended outward up to 150 miles, mainly to the north of Irene's center, forecasters said.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Irene threatens to become season's first hurricane 08/20/11 [Last modified: Sunday, August 21, 2011 11:14pm]
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