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Hurricane Irene rips across Caribbean

Hurricane Irene cut a destructive path through the Caribbean on Monday, raking Puerto Rico with strong winds and rain and then spinning just north of the Dominican Republic on a track that could carry it to the U.S. Southeast as a major storm by the end of the week.

Irene slashed across Puerto Rico, tearing up trees and knocking out power to more than a million people, then headed out to sea north of the Dominican Republic, where the powerful storm's outer bands were buffeting the north coast with dangerous sea surges and downpours.

Forecasters at the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said Monday night that a hurricane-hunter aircraft measured maximum sustained winds of 100 mph, making it a Category 2 storm that was expected to strengthen during the next two days and could be near major-hurricane strength by the time it tracks over the central Bahamas.

The first hurricane of the Atlantic season was a large system that could cause dangerous mudslides and floods in the Dominican Republic, the center said. It was not expected to make a direct hit on neighboring Haiti, though that country could still see heavy rain from the storm.

Dominican officials said the government had emergency food available for 1.5 million people if needed, and the country's military and public safety brigades were on alert.

Irene is forecast to grow into a Category 3 hurricane with winds of 115 mph over the Bahamas on Thursday. And it may carry that force northwest along Florida's Atlantic coast and toward a possible strike on South Carolina, though the forecasters warned that by the weekend, the storm's path could vary significantly from the current projection.

Florida residents were urged to make sure they had batteries, drinking water, food and other supplies.

Officials in Charleston, S.C., also warned residents to monitor Irene closely.

The hurricane was expected to pass near or over the Turks and Caicos Islands and the southeastern Bahamas today.

Meanwhile, guests, including Academy Award-winning actress Kate Winslet, escaped uninjured when fire destroyed British businessman Richard Branson's Caribbean home during Irene's onslaught Monday, Branson said.

The Virgin Group boss said about 20 people, including Winslet and her children, were staying in the eight-bedroom Great House on Necker, his private isle in the British Virgin Islands.