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Irene slams Puerto Rico, heads for U.S.

NAGUA, Dominican Republic — Powerful Hurricane Irene cut a destructive path through the Caribbean on Monday, raking Puerto Rico with strong winds and rain and then spinning just north of the Dominican Republic on a track that could carry it to the U.S. Southeast by the end of the week.

Irene grew into a Category 2 hurricane with winds of 100 mph late Monday.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said it could be a monstrous Category 3 storm when it passes over the Bahamas and slams into the United States, possibly landing in South Carolina, Florida or Georgia.

Earlier, the storm slashed across Puerto Rico, tearing up trees and knocking out power to more than a million people, then headed out to sea north of the Dominican Republic, where its outer bands were buffeting the north coast with dangerous sea surge and downpours.

The first hurricane of the Atlantic season was a large system that could cause dangerous mudslides and floods in Dominican Republic, the hurricane center said. It was not expected to make a direct hit on neighboring Haiti, though that country could still see heavy rain from the storm.

Dominican officials said the government had emergency food available for 1.5 million people if needed and the country's military and public safety brigades were on alert.

"We have taken all precautions," presidential spokesman Rafael Nunez said.

Florida residents were urged to ensure they had batteries, drinking water, food and other supplies.

"We must prepare for the worst and hope for the best," said Joe Martinez, chairman of the Miami-Dade County Commission.

Officials in Charleston, S.C., also warned residents to monitor Irene closely. It has been six years since a hurricane hit the South Carolina coast, said Joe Farmer of the state Emergency Management Division.

Police and civil protection officials in the Dominican Republic made their way along the beaches of the country's northern coast to warn people away from the surging sea. Resorts pulled up the umbrellas and lounge chairs as the storm made its way toward the country.

At the Wyndham Tangerine, a hotel in the resort area of Sosua and Cabarete, the staff converted a conference room into a temporary storm refuge for 300 people, said deputy general manager Karen Gonzalez.

Jose Manuel Mendez, director of the country's Emergency Operations Center, said that only about 135 people were in public shelters, but that hundreds of others were staying with friends and family to avoid the storm, which was expected to drop as much as 14 inches at higher elevations.

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