Hurricane Ike at Cat 4; packs winds of 135 mph

Published 11:00 pm Saturday, September 6, 2008

The National Hurricane Center in Miami says Hurricane Ike has intensified to a dangerous Category 4 storm with winds sustained at 135 mph.

Winds had diminished earlier Saturday but gathered strength by 5 p.m. EDT. Ike is expected to pummel the low-lying British territory of Turks and Caicos first.

The governments of the Bahamas and Cuba have issued hurricane warnings.

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Forecasters say the storm is likely to strengthen as it approaches southern Florida by Monday.

Tropical Storm Hanna accelerated toward New England on Saturday after the storm’s whipping winds and rain didn’t linger long enough over the Southeast to cause much more than some isolated flooding and power outages.

Hanna moved quickly inland after cruising ashore overnight with winds of around 50 mph. As the storm cleared out of the Southeast, eyes turned to the open Atlantic and the nasty looking Hurricane Ike — again a Category 4 storm with 135 mph winds that was expected to strengthen as it approached Cuba and southern Florida by Monday.

By comparison, Hanna, which was heading toward the lower Chesapeake Bay, was a breeze.

“Right now we’re just keeping an eye on things and making sure we stay ahead of the eight-ball,” said Moore County, N.C., public safety director Carlton Cole. “It’s nowhere near as bad as it could have been.”

Heavy rain fell in the Carolinas, including 5 inches in Fayetteville and the Sandhills region. The same was forecast for central Virginia, Maryland and southeastern Pennsylvania, southern New York and New England, where some spots could get up to 10 inches. Forecasters warned of the potential for flash flooding in the northern mid-Atlantic states and southern New England.

Rain was falling and the surf was picking up on the shore in New Jersey, and Hanna should reach New England by Sunday morning.

Tropical storm watches or warnings were issued all the way to Massachusetts, and included all of Chesapeake Bay, the Washington, D.C., area and Long Island, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. There were no reports of any deaths or injuries in the U.S. attributed to Hanna, which was blamed for disastrous flooding and more than 100 deaths in Haiti.

At least 2,000 people spent the night in shelters and almost 100,000 customers along the East Coast had no power midday Saturday.

And the Coast Guard closed all navigable waters in the Port of Hampton Roads, the lower Maryland Eastern Shore and the Port of Richmond, Va., on the James River. Maryland authorities issued wind warnings on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

In the resort town of Ocean City, Md., Beach Patrol Capt. Butch Arbin ordered lifeguards posted at all entrances to the 10 1/2-mile beach to urge people to stay well back from the towering waves.

But that didn’t keep surfers from trying to ride the swells that doubled to 12 feet by late morning.

“We’re just really excited to have some sort of waves,” said 20-year-old Taylor Thonton of Westchester, Pa.

At Ocean Isle Beach, south of Wilmington, N.C., the storm damaged a road that was already under assault from beach erosion. Elsewhere along the Eastern seaboard, folks quickly moved to reclaim the weekend from the storm.

“It looks like it’s going to be a great weekend on the Grand Strand,” said South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford.

On North Carolina’s Outer Banks, the stinging sand and sea spray didn’t keep 78-year-old William Cusick from getting up early to walk his dog on the beach.

“I don’t see anything too exciting about this — it’s not too serious,” Cusick said.

The storm did cause some travel headaches. Raleigh-Durham International Airport canceled a few dozen flights Saturday morning, and there were also some cancellations at Ronald Reagan National and Dulles International in the Washington D.C. area. Amtrak idled 10 trains, including the Silver Meteor between New York and Miami, and the Auto Train between Lorton, Va., and Sanford, Fla.

Weekend sports were also impacted. Expectations of heavy rain forced NASCAR to postpone Saturday night’s Sprint Cup Series race to Sunday afternoon at Richmond International Raceway. Organizers of the U.S. Open in New York said they may have to reschedule some of the tennis matches and the first game of a scheduled day-night doubleheader between the Oakland Athletics and Baltimore Orioles was postponed.