“There’s probably no doubt that we’ll get a lot of flooding,” said Larry Atkinson, an oceanography professor at Old Dominion University in Norfolk.
With 120 mph sustained winds, Irene was moving up the Caribbean on Wednesday toward the East Coast. Forecasters said it could strengthen to a Category 4 storm — sustained winds of 131 to 155 mph — before weakening to a Category 1 storm on Saturday morning.
Around the same time, it is expected to skirt the coasts of North Carolina’s Outer Banks and Virginia.
The water level at Sewells Point, near Naval Station Norfolk, should peak at 9 p.m. Saturday. Combined with high tide, Irene could bring an additional six feet of water to Hampton Roads, Atkinson said.
The projection is similar to what the region faced in 1999 during Hurricane Floyd. That storm, which included record rainfall, caused three deaths and more than $100 million in damage to homes and businesses throughout eastern Virginia.
While low-lying communities, such as Hampton and Gloucester County remain at risk, lessons learned from Floyd and other storms, such as Isabel in 2003, should help mitigate damage.
Hundreds of homeowners, many with the assistance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, elevated flood-prone houses last decade.
Also, emergency responders say that residents and businesses are generally better prepared now compared to 10 years ago. For example, marina operators began moving boats to higher ground earlier this week in anticipation of Irene.
Such planning paid off in November 2009 when a powerful nor’easter, nicknamed Nor’Ida, pummeled Hampton Roads. While flooding rivaled that of Isabel, it caused significantly less damage in Poquoson and other areas.
Even so, FEMA director William Fugate urged residents not to be lulled into a false sense of security just because the storm is expected to weaken as it approaches the East Coast. Virginia and other states could see large amounts of rain, beach erosion and flooding, he said during a conference call.
“The category of the storm and wind speed don’t tell the full story,” he said.
Irene was moving 12 mph Wednesday over the Bahamas. It is expected to shift north on Thursday and steer clear of Florida, said Bill Read, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s tropical prediction center.
In preparation of flooding and severe winds, North Carolina ordered all tourists off Ocracoke Island. There will be a mandatory evacuation of residents starting at 5 a.m. Thursday.
No such orders have been issued in Virginia, but emergency management officials say they are monitoring the storm’s progress.
When asked what affect Tuesday’s earthquake — Virginia’s largest in more than 100 years — had on FEMA’s planning, Fugate responded: “It reminded people that the unexpected can happen.”
How much flooding?
2003 Isabel: 5.12 feet
2009 Nor’Ida: 4.99 feet
1999 Floyd: 3.21 feet
2011 Irene: 3 feet
Source: Norfolk-based Wetlands Watch