Hurricane Irene is expected to gather strength over the next few days before hitting the southeastern United States as a major Category 3 storm, with winds over 111 mph (178 kph), forecasters said Tuesday.
The storm is churning through the Caribbean on Tuesday and is predicted to be the first hurricane to hit the United States since Ike slammed into Texas in 2008, according to Reuters.
On Tuesday morning, Irene was packing winds of about 100 mph and moving northwest off the northern coast of Hispaniola island.
A hurricane watch was issued for the northern coast of Haiti from Le Mole St. Nicholas eastward to the border. A hurricane warning was issued for Turks and Caicos Islands, the Bahamas and the rest of Haiti, the Miami Herald reported.
The first Atlantic hurricane of the season left more than a million Puerto Ricans without power as it flooded streets, knocked down trees and caused rivers to break their banks on Sunday.
It also forced Oscar-winning actress Kate Winslet and relatives of British tycoon Richard Branson to flee his Caribbean island home after lightning sparked a fire on the property, as reported earlier on GlobalPost.
Forecasters say the storm could move up Florida's east coast on Thursday and touch down in North or South Carolina on the weekend. Some computer models suggested Irene could even swing toward New York City early next week.
"We want to make sure Floridians are paying attention," Bryan Koon, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, told AP.
"We are at the height of the hurricane season right now. If it's not Hurricane Irene, it could be the follow-up storm that impacts us."
The last hurricane to hit Florida was Wilma in 2005, just two months after Katrina wrecked New Orleans.
"For residents in states that may be affected later this week, it's critical that you take this storm seriously," Craig Fugate, Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator, told AP.
Miami resident Julio Gonzalez was already taking precautions.
"I'm gonna board up. It's best to play it safe," he said.