Officials along the East Coast of the United States are calculating what they need to do if Irene becomes the first major hurricane to strike the region in seven years.

They’re scrambling to inspect bridges, sending naval ships away, dusting off evacuation plans and getting sandbags ready for potential floods. And considering where and when to move people out of harm’s way.

“You have to recognise that you’re living here on an island, and island living represents certain risks,” said Edward Mangano, county executive in Long Island’s Nassau County, where school buses were being moved to higher ground in case they’re needed to evacuate residents to storm shelters. “And those risks appear now, at least, to be tracking toward us.”

On Thursday, the storm was thrashing the Bahamas with widespread damage reported on at least two southern islands.

As of 8 a.m. EDT (5.30 p.m. IST), the Category 3 hurricane was centred about 100 km east-northeast of Nassau in the Bahamas with winds at 185 kmph.

Forecasters said the winds will ramp up quickly over the next day and Irene was expected to blow into a monstrous Category 4 with winds at least 210 kmph.

While the storm’s path isn’t definite, U.S. officials are taking nothing for granted.

Forecasters say that Irene could hit North Carolina’s Outer Banks on Saturday afternoon.

It’s then predicted to chug up the East Coast, dumping rain from Virginia to New York City before a much-weakened form reaches land in Connecticut. Finally, it should peter out in Maine by Monday afternoon.

A hurricane watch was issued early Thursday for much of the North Carolina coast. A hurricane watch means hurricane conditions are possible within 36 hours. Also, a tropical storm watch was issued for much of South Carolina’s coast.

In Virginia, the U.S. Navy ordered the Second Fleet to leave Norfolk Naval Station to keep ships safe from the approaching hurricane. Thursday’s order applied to 64 ships in southeastern Virginia. Nine ships were already at sea early Thursday with more on the way.

The Navy said ships that are under way can better weather such storms. The move will also help protect piers from being damaged.

Meanwhile, a new tropical depression formed far out over the Atlantic early Thursday, with the National Hurricane Centre saying it would likely become a tropical storm later in the day.

Even without hurricane-force winds, northeastern States already drenched from a rainy August could see flooding and fallen trees from Irene.

“You want to go into a hurricane threat with dry soil, low rivers, a half moon,” New Jersey State climatologist David Robinson said.

That is not the case. The Garden State has gotten twice as much rain this month as in a normal August, and high tide happens at 8 a.m. EDT (5.30 p.m. IST) on Sunday, when Irene might be passing by.

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