MIAMI (AP) - As Hurricane Irene pummeled Puerto Rico, South Florida emergency officials directed staff to halt routine operations and switch strictly to storm mode Monday.
"Hurricane preparations are pretty much the order of the day," said Mike Geier, Palm Beach County radiological emergency preparedness planner. "We go through a pretty extensive checklist. It's probably three pages long."
The U.S. National Hurricane Center's current forecast has Irene hitting southern Florida as a hurricane by Thursday. The storm, which marks the first hurricane of the Atlantic hurricane season, could also clip Georgia and the Carolinas.
By Monday morning, Hurricane Irene was moving west-northwest away from Puerto Rico at roughly 14 mph (22 kph) with maximum sustained winds near 75 mph (120 kph). Irene's center was about 55 miles (90 kilometers) west-northwest of San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Forecasters said the main impediment to the storm's progress over the next couple of days will come if it hits land. If Irene passes over Hispaniola's mountains or over parts of eastern Cuba, the storm could weaken more than currently expected.
"However, if the system ends up moving to the north of both of those land masses it could strengthen more than expected," forecaster Richard Pasch wrote.
Broward County emergency officials had already begun preparations Monday morning. Fifteen emergency management staffers were asked to report to work to monitor the storm.
Emergency management director Chuck Lanza said staff will soon begin calling roughly 1,000 special needs residents, including elderly and disabled residents, to assess what kind of help they'll need if Irene hits South Florida. Those residents could be transported to shelters Wednesday or Thursday depending on the storm's progress.
Irene pummeled Puerto Rico overnight, flooding the streets and leaving more than a million without power. There were no immediate reports of any deaths.
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