Hurricane Irene gained strength Wednesday as it roared up from the Caribbean on a path that sent residents on United States' eastern seaboard into a flurry of preparations for a likely hit over the weekend.
Irene regained force as a Category 2 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, with top winds of 155 kilometers per hour, the US National Hurricane Center said.
"Irene could become a major hurricane within the next day or so," the center said.
Even as Irene, the first hurricane of the 2011 Atlantic season, pounded the Turks and Caicos Islands and southeast Bahamas with winds, rain and a dangerous storm surge, people in the Carolinas on the southeastern US coast were getting ready for the storm's approach.
At 02:00 (GMT -2), Irene was about 650km (400 miles) southeast of Nassau and 1,570km (975 miles) south of Cape Hatteras in North Carolina.
Irene, the ninth named storm of the June-through-November season, looks set to be the first hurricane to hit the United States since Ike pounded the Texas coast in 2008. But forecasts showed it posing no threat to US oil and gas installations in the Gulf of Mexico.
Irene briefly weakened on Tuesday to a Category 1 hurricane, but could strengthen into a major Category 3 storm with winds over 178 km/h by late Thursday, the hurricane center said. The storm is forecast to approach the coast of the Carolinas on Saturday morning. After that, the saturated New England region could be at risk from torrential rains, high winds and flooding from Irene, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate said.
Major eastern cities like Washington and New York could feel some impact, the forecasts showed. North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue urged residents to stock up on three days worth of food, water and supplies.
Voluntary evacuations began yesterday for parts of North Carolina's Outer Banks, a stretch of barrier islands and beaches that are popular summer holiday spots.
Irene drenched the northeastern Caribbean islands earlier in the week. The first death from the storm was reported on Tuesday in Puerto Rico, where a woman was swept away.
Heavy rains continue to pelt the US Caribbean territory, causing flooding and mudslides.