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Hurricane Irene howls over Turks and Caicos

Punishing winds from Hurricane Irene howled over Turks and Caicos and the sparsely populated islands of the south eastern Bahamas as residents huddled in darkened homes, hotels and public buildings.

Islanders wary of a possible blow from Irene pulled boats ashore and packed supermarkets on the Turks and Caicos Islands before the Category 1 storm spun over open seas toward the tiny British territory, where tourism is the primary industry.

The government moved the elderly and sick to safety, and officials said power had been knocked out on the capital and light poles were being toppled.

Howling winds were rattling the storm shutters on Sandra Thompson's windows at her home in Providenciales in the eight-island British dependency located between Haiti and the Bahamas and roughly 600 miles south east of Miami.

"I can sure hear the wind howling out there. There's still a lot of rain falling outside and a lot of wind," Ms Thompson said by phone last night.

Ms Thompson and other islanders were thankful that the hurricane had lost a bit of steam as it approached the territory.

It weakened into a Category 1 storm earlier in the day. Forecasters at the US National Hurricane Centre in Miami had initially expected Irene to strengthen into a Category 3 yesterday.

By late last night, Irene was about 410 miles south east of Nassau, Bahamas, with maximum winds of 90mph. It was moving toward the west-north west near 9mph.

The hurricane centre said Irene will move across the south eastern and central Bahamas today and the north western Bahamas tomorrow. It was expected to strengthen to a Category 2 hurricane this morning.

It might make landfall over the North Carolina coast on Saturday, then move to the north near the Chesapeake Bay.

By last night, only the island of Grand Turk, where Hurricane Ike damaged roughly 95% of homes in September 2008, had electricity knocked out amid Irene's passage, according to government spokesman Kendol Morgan.

Hunkered down in a government building on Grand Turk, Mr Morgan said he had not heard of any initial reports of any injuries or major damage. But authorities were not yet able to assess the full extent of storm damage as torrential downpours and powerful winds made surveillance by authorities almost impossible.

"It's early days still," Mr Morgan said by phone from Grand Turk, the islands' capital, where there are about a half-dozen hotels.

Tourism is the primary industry in Turks and Caicos, which have little natural protection from powerful storm surges. The Caribbean island chain has also been a hot stop for celebrities for years.

The government assured people it has enough emergency supplies available, and that a Royal Navy ship is on standby in Curacao.

In the Bahamas, the military expected to deploy small teams to Acklins, Cat Island, Eleuthera and Abaco, said prime minister Hubert Ingraham.

He said if Irene strengthens to a Category 3 hurricane, it will damage roofs and weak structures. He urged islanders to prepare supplies and pick up debris that whipping winds could turn into dangerous projectiles.

"We cannot replace life. Hence my urgent and repeated appeals for the observance of safety measures," he said.

Irene was still impacting the northern coasts of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, where crews have begun cleaning up debris and the government warned of flooding. Officials said more than 1,000 people were evacuated.

In Puerto Rico, a 62-year-old woman died after she tried to cross a swollen river in her car, police said.

In the United States, residents from Florida to the Carolinas stocked up on supplies and readied for the worst from Irene.