SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico Tropical Storm Irene took aim at Puerto Rico on Sunday as it barrelled west on a track through the Caribbean that looked set to threaten Florida.
Irene, the ninth named storm of the 2011 Atlantic hurricane season, was expected to pass near or over Puerto Rico overnight and strengthen into a hurricane by Monday as it approached the Dominican Republic.
It would be the first hurricane of the busy, but so far not destructive, 2011 Atlantic hurricane season.
At 2 p.m. EDT, Irene had top winds of 50 miles per hour (85 kph) and was about 300 km east-southeast of Ponce, Puerto Rico. It was near the U.S. Virgin Islands and moving into the northeastern Caribbean, the U.S.-based National Hurricane Centre said.
The storm pelted the Leeward Islands with heavy rain and squalls as it crossed from the Atlantic Ocean into the northeastern Caribbean Sea on Sunday.
Hurricane watches and warnings were in effect in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Tropical storm warnings were in effect for the Virgin Islands and Haiti.
Puerto Rico lifted a ban on Sunday morning shopping, allowing stores to open so residents could stock up on canned food, bottled water and other necessities. Prices were frozen and alcohol sales were halted until after the storm passes.
Puerto Rico Secretary of State Kenneth McClintock said schools and government offices would be closed on Monday in the U.S. territory, and urged residents to finish their preparations then stay inside their homes.
"You have to think about protecting life," McClintock said at a news conference.
Governor Luis Fortuno flew back to Puerto Rico after taking over the chairmanship of the Southern Governors Association on Sunday at the group's convention in North Carolina.
Ferry service to the islands of Vieques and Culebra was halted and several inter-Caribbean flights from San Juan's Luis Munoz Marin Airport were cancelled.
WATCHING IRENE'S PATH
In the Dominican Republic, authorities warned of abnormal waves up to 4.5 metres high. Weeks of heavy rainfall have already caused deadly flooding in the Dominican Republic and authorities said they may issue evacuation orders for vulnerable areas on Monday.
Residents of Cuba, the Turks and Caicos Islands, the Bahamas and the southeastern United States were urged to monitor Irene's progress as the storm headed their way.
Computer forecast models showed Irene moving northwest over Haiti and eastern and central Cuba and then heading towards the Florida peninsula.
Depending on its eventual path and possible turns, Irene might still pose a threat to U.S. oil and gas installations in the Gulf of Mexico, but forecasters say it is too early to predict with certitude.
An early northward turn would bring it near the Georgia-South Carolina coast late in the week. But a later turn could keep it over the warm Caribbean waters until it reached the Gulf of Mexico, which could make it a much more powerful hurricane.
Tropical Storm Harvey hit Belize in Central America on Saturday but weakened on Sunday to a tropical depression. Forecasters said it was still producing heavy rains over southeastern Mexico but was expected to dissipate by Monday.
Mudslides and flooding could affect agricultural output in Central America, but this year's coffee and sugar harvests are largely complete.
(Reporting by Reuters in San Juan, with additional reporting by Pascal Fletcher and Jane Sutton in Miami and Manuel Jimenez in Santo Domingo; editing by Eric Beech)