Partner Series
Irene Looks to Break US Hurricane Lull
Hurricane Irene on Aug. 24.
Credit: NASA.

The Outer Banks of North Carolina haven't seen a hurricane hit in several years. That could change Saturday (Aug. 27).

Hurricane Irene is now barreling through the Bahamas as a Category 3 hurricane with winds of 115 mph (185 kph) and could strengthen further when it swirls up the East Coast. Coastal North Carolina evacuations have begun. Leaving is voluntary for residents but mandatory for tourists.

Irene's arrival would snap the three-year lull in U.S. hurricane landfalls. The last hurricane to hit the United States was Hurricane Ike in September 2008. That storm socked the coasts of Texas and Louisiana, killing dozens of people. Many cities in Irene's predicted path haven't seen a major hurricane in decades.

Irene is expected to move through the Bahamas, then up to the Outer Banks, a 200-mile (322 kilometers) string of barrier islands. Irene is then expected to travel along the coast of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast states and could bring severe winds and rain as far north as Maine. The storm would likely weaken in the cooler waters off the northern states, though it could still bring torrential rains and strong storm surge. [Related: Could New York City Handle a Hurricane?]

The Outer Banks jut out into the Atlantic, making it a hurricane bull's eye. Several tropical cyclones (which include tropical storms and hurricanes) have hit them or passed nearby in recorded hurricane history. Hurricane Floyd made landfall over the Outer Banks in September 1999 as a Category 2 hurricane and killed 35 people in North Carolina. It was the deadliest storm to hit the U.S. since Hurricane Agnes in 1972.

Hurricane Isabel hit the Outer Banks in 2003 as a Category 2 storm, where it caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.

Category 2 hurricanes on the Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane strength have winds between 96 and 110 mph (154 and 177 kph). Winds in a Category 3 hurricane like Irene range from 111 to 130 mph (178 to 209 kph).

In New York City, people are keeping a close watch on the storm's track. New York frequently gets the wind and rain from passing storms, including ones that strike Long Island, but hasn't had a direct hurricane hit since 1985, when Gloria caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage with its high winds and storm surge. In 1972 and 1976, hurricanes came close but spared the city.

The New England Hurricane of 1938 hit Long Island as a Category 3 storm. The hurricane caused flooding and power outages and disrupted subway and ferry service. In 1944, the Great Atlantic Hurricane hit Long Island, sending 100 mph (161 kph) winds into New York City.

Irene could reach New England as a Category 1 late Sunday. The last hurricane to make landfall in New England was Hurricane Bob in 1991, which struck near the Connecticut-Rhode Island border as a Category 2 storm.

Should Irene last all the way to Maine, it would be the first hurricane to make landfall there since Gerda in 1969.

Irene is the first hurricane in what has been forecast to be an active season. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration updated its forecast Aug. 4, predicting 14 to 19 named storms (which include tropical storms and hurricanes), seven to 10 hurricanes, and three to five major hurricanes. An average Atlantic hurricane season will see 11 named storms, six hurricanes and two major hurricanes. August, September and October are the peak months of the Atlantic hurricane season.