MIAMI (Reuters) - Tropical Storm Irene formed on Saturday east of the Caribbean's Leeward Islands and could become a hurricane on Monday on a forecast track that takes it through the Caribbean and may threaten Florida.
At 7 p.m., Irene, the ninth named storm of the 2011 Atlantic hurricane season, was packing winds near 50 miles per hour and was about 190 miles east of Dominica, the U.S.-based National Hurricane Center said.
Tropical storm warnings were issued for many of the Leeward Islands, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, the Miami-based center said after a U.S. Air Force Reserve 'hurricane hunter' aircraft investigated the storm.
"Some strengthening is forecast during the next 48 hours and Irene could become a hurricane on Monday," the NHC said, adding hurricane conditions could occur in the Dominican Republic late on Monday.
It would be the first hurricane of the so far busy, but to date not destructive, 2011 Atlantic hurricane season.
Computer forecast models showed Irene taking a northwestward path over Haiti and eastern and central Cuba and then heading up the western side of the Florida peninsula.
Depending on its eventual path and possible turns, Irene might still pose a threat to U.S. oil and gas installations in the Gulf of Mexico, but forecasters say this is too early to predict with certitude.
The NHC said that if Irene avoided land and stayed over warm Caribbean waters, conditions would be favorable for its strengthening.
Irene formed after Tropical Storm Harvey made landfall on the coast of Central America earlier on Saturday, lashing Belize with strong winds and rain and threatening to dump more on sugar- and coffee-producing areas in the region.
The center of Harvey was moving west over northern Guatemala, and the main threat it posed was of heavy rainfall, the NHC said.
Mudslides and flooding could affect agricultural output in Central America, but this year's coffee and sugar harvests are largely over.
Harvey was expected to weaken to a tropical depression on Sunday, the NHC said.
Forecasters said Caribbean island states, the Bahamas and Florida needed to closely monitor the path of Irene.
"Given the uncertainties, this weekend would be a good time to go over your hurricane preparedness if you live anywhere in the Caribbean, Bahamas, or Florida, since (it) could well be paying you a visit as a tropical storm or hurricane sometime in the next week," hurricane expert Jeff Masters of private forecaster Weather Underground wrote in his blog on Saturday.
(Reporting by Pascal Fletcher in Miami; additional reporting by Dave Graham in Mexico City, Gustavo Palencia in Honduras and
Mike McDonald in Guatemala City; Editing by Philip Barbara)