Ready or Not, Hurricane Irene Could Swing Past Florida as a Deadly Category 4

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National Hurricane Center

It’s been a while since a serious category-scary Atlantic hurricane’s scoured America’s shores head-on. Of the last four that formed late summer 2010, only Earl came near land, and even then, the path of the eye was offshore. Not so with Irene, currently a Category 2 hurricane looking to morph into a deadly Category 4 monster as it passes east of Central Florida, thereon headed straight for the Carolinas.

The National Hurricane Center (NHC) lists Irene as a dangerous Category 2 hurricane (wind speeds 111 to 130 miles per hour, storm surges of six to eight feet) just north of Haiti and the Dominican Republic as of 11:00 a.m. Eastern on Tuesday. But their course projection shows it intensifying to Category 4 strength as it passes along Florida’s east coast by 8:00 a.m. Friday, with wind speeds of 131 to 155 miles per hour and storm surges of 13 to 18 feet.

(PHOTOS: The Deadliest Hurricanes in U.S. History)

That’s actually something of a reprieve for Floridians, as Irene had been projected to steer much closer to the peninsula in prior forecast models. Irene’s already done serious damage in the Caribbean, where it uprooted trees and cut power to over a million people in Puerto Rico before swinging slightly to the north and skirting the Dominican Republic’s northern edge. At this point, residents along Florida’s southern coast could experience tropical storm caliber weather (39 to 73 mile-per-hour winds, and up to three-foot storm surges) as Irene roars past on its way to the Carolinas.

The NHC predicts Irene will reach Category 3 strength today, after which it could intensify to terrifying Category 4 speeds. The NHC’s forecast graphic (above) says Irene will remain a “major hurricane” with wind speeds topping 110 mph right up to landfall Saturday morning, only diminishing to standard “hurricane” strength (wind speeds between 74 and 110 mph) once it’s passed across the Carolinas and swept into eastern Virginia sometime Sunday morning.

Want to have a look at this thing from space? NASA grabbed the following video from the International Space Station, showing Hurricane Irene as it passed north of the Dominican Republic and Haiti.


Hurricane Katrina, you may recall, reached lethal Category 5 speeds while offshore, but slowed to a still-deadly Category 3 when it finally punched through New Orleans. The last hurricane to hit one of the Carolinas directly was Hurricane Charley in 2004. After striking the Gulf Coast of Florida, Charley moved north and slammed into South Carolina, ultimately killing 10 in the U.S. and racking up the second most expensive damages bill after Katrina: $15 billion.

MORE: Irene Closely Watched on Approach to U.S.

Matt Peckham is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @mattpeckham or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.