Hurricane Irene could ramp up to a Category 4 storm in the next 24 hours, with winds topping 135 miles per hour, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, but it's still uncertain what impact it will have on Northern Virginia.
Category 4 winds fall between 131-155 miles per hour.
The storm's projected path has turned steadily to the east throughout the past 24 hours. NHC models show a track over or very close to the mid-Atlantic. The National Weather Service predicts an 80 percent chance of rain in Northern Virginia Saturday night with wind gusts on Sunday.
"Hurricane Irene's closest pass to Fairfax County will probably be Saturday night into Sunday morning," noted Merni Fitzgerald, director of Public Affairs for Fairfax County. "The hurricane track has been gradually shifting to the east, which makes it less likely to have an impact on Fairfax County. But whatever happens, we have been actively monitoring and preparing."
David McKernan, coordinator of Emergency Management for the county, said he expects to see "significant rain" of 1-3 inches and minor tidal surge flooding, maximum 35 mph wind gusts, perhaps some tree damage and power outages. "But all of that can change," he said.
The critical points for storm surge, McKernan said, are Huntington and New Alexandria right along the Potomac River and Hunting Creek. "There's no way of holding that water back," he said. "They do have flood control measures in place, but they're only effective up to a certain point and then it's 'Katy bar the door'. They were severely impacted during Hurricane Isabel."
Residents who live in those areas can get emergency alerts from the county specific to the flooding, McKernan said.
McKernan will be at the helm Friday for an online chat to discuss Hurricane Irene preparedness efforts.
The City of Alexandria, no stranger to flooding, is also making preparations, said Tony Castrilli, director of Communications for the city. "We had a meeting yesterday, another today and another tomorrow." Castrilli said the city is on alert and will monitor the storm's path. Likely after the Thursday meeting is when they'll decide whether it's necessary to hand out sandbags for flood-prone areas.
Regardless, essential personnel stand ready to work through the weekend if needed, he said.
The storm, upgraded to a Category 3 hurricane overnight, is expected to continue picking up speed and strength today as it turns toward the East Coast, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Although its path could change at any time, forecasters are tentatively saying today that after powering to a possible Category 4, they expect it to slow to a Category 2 by the weekend, with most rain and wind taking place on Virginia's coastal areas as it moves north.
“Irene’s path is not certain, and a small change in the track could bring different impacts,” said Michael Cline, state coordinator for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, in a news release. “Virginia state agencies are getting ready for the storm, and so should residents.”
Cline said Virginians should pay close attention to the storm, find out if they are at risk for storm surge and review their evacuation, shelter and pet plans, he said, noting:
- Irene is a large, wide storm, and residents should pay attention to the extent of the storm, not the path or location of the eye.
- There are no evacuation orders in effect for any part of Virginia, and there are no plans for a regional evacuation.
Dominion Power spokeswoman Le-Ha Anderson said the company isn't waiting around until the last minute to see what happens. "We have a team of meteorologists tracking the storm," she said. "Our crews are prepared and our contractors are ready."
Dominion Power offers these tips to prepare if the hurricane's path makes for more menacing weather for Northern Virginia.
Meanwhile, Irene lumbered into the Bahamas at 9 mph Tuesday night and is expected to clear the islands Thursday before taking a turn toward the north, according to the National Hurricane Center.
As of 2 p.m. today, the hurricane's highest winds were at about 120 mph, the center said.
If the storm weakens, the National Hurricane Center said it will still remain a large and powerful hurricane for the next five days.
Patch Associate Regional Editor Emily Seawell of South Florida contributed to this report.