State climatologist David Robinson says much of New Jersey, which has already had twice as much rain this month as it gets in a typical August, is vulnerable to flooding and fallen trees.
And with a new moon due over the weekend, the high tides will be especially high, potentially increasing the severity of floods in coastal areas and on tidal rivers and streams.
Even if the storm takes an abrupt eastward turn and leaves New Jersey untouched, it seems to be taking a toll on tourism already.
By Wednesday afternoon, tourist sites in Cape May County had already started reporting cancellations, said Diane Wieland, the county's tourism director. She fears that people spending the summer at houses on the shore will head home before the storm hits and not come back.
"We always look for this last week before Labor Day as being a boon, the last hurrah," Wieland said.
Irene was a major Category 3 in the Bahamas by Wednesday night, with winds of 120 mph. Officials were telling residents everywhere from North Carolina to New England to be prepared, unsure of the exact path.
In New Jersey, a direct hit is exceptionally rare. Robinson said hurricanes have made landfall in the state only twice as far as records exist. One hit Cape May in 1821 and worked its way north on the coast. Another made land north of Atlantic City in 1903.
But several hurricanes that have stayed off shore or that have made land as weaker storms have brought destructive winds or torrential flood-causing rains. Among the worst have been an unnamed but major 1944 hurricane, Donna in 1960, Gloria and 1985 and Floyd, which caused major floods in 1999.
With saturating rains having already hit almost every part of New Jersey except for the shore this month, Robinson said conditions are ominous.
"You want to go into a hurricane threat with dry soil, low rivers, a half moon," he said. "The one outlier is whether it comes at high tide or low tide, how close it gets to us, and how much strength it retains by the time it's up here."
He said high tide Sunday morning will be around 8 a.m. If the hurricane passed near the state around then, he said, it would be particularly damaging. If it comes several hours earlier or later, the effect could be muted.
State officials, meanwhile, were keeping a close eye on the storm's path and were planning to open an emergency command center by the weekend.
State Police Sgt. Stephen Jones said residents should know where to get storm information, be prepared with supplies like flashlights and batteries and make sure the gas tanks in their cars are full. He said those on the shore should be prepared to evacuate if they're ordered to do so.
New Jersey hasn't had much practice with evacuations, but there are plans and there have been drills, he said.
Robinson said there could be come complications if it comes to telling people to get off the shore: The major routes away from some shore points are on low-lying roads that face flood dangers.
Some areas packed with tourists are accessible only by causeways that get congested on normal summer weekends.
Wednesday on Long Beach Island, an 18-mile barrier island, there was some anxiety - but it wasn't urgent.
At La Spiaggialbi, an Italian restaurant in Ship Bottom, owner Mark Stragapede said the biggest concern is flooding and beach erosion, not the hit that tourism will take. Restaurant staff will be ready to put sandbags in place and chairs up on tables.
Tammie Thompson, who owns the Windward at the Beach Inn in Beach Haven, said customers have expressed concern, but so far, only one has canceled. But with only 10 rooms, each unfilled room takes a big financial toll.
"My response is to sit tight and hope for the best," Thompson said, noting there have been hurricanes before, including last summer. "There's so many of them, and the hype has always been more than the actual event."The National Weather Service says strong rains from Irene and another weather system combined with high tides could cause tidal flooding over the weekend.
State climatologist David Robinson says conditions are ripe for a damaging storm. The soil is saturated, rivers are high and trees could fall easily because of the wet ground.
Forecasters say Hurricane Irene could hit the East Coast anywhere between North Carolina and New England.
New Jersey officials say they're preparing to open an emergency operations center.
A hurricane has made landfall on New Jersey only twice in the last 200 years. But several storms have passed near enough to cause serious flooding or wind damage.
If you are asked to evacuate, you should do so without delay. But unless you live in a coastal or low-lying area, an area that floods frequently, or in manufactured housing, it is unlikely that emergency managers will ask you to evacuate. That means that it is important for you and your family to HAVE A PLAN that makes you as safe as possible in your home.
Disaster prevention includes modifying your home to strengthen it against storms so that you can be as safe as possible. It also includes having the supplies on hand to weather the storm.
The suggestions provided here are only guides. You should use common sense in your disaster prevention.
DEVELOP A FAMILY PLAN - Your family's plan should be based on your vulnerability to the Hurricane Hazards. You should keep a written plan and share your plan with other friends or family.
CREATE A DISASTER SUPPLY KIT - There are certain items you need to have regardless of where you ride out a hurricane. The disaster supply kit is a useful tool when you evacuate as well as making you as safe as possible in your home.
SECURE YOUR HOME - There are things that you can do to make your home more secure and able to withstand stronger storms.
ONLINE VULNERABILITY INFO - There are web sites that can give you information about your communities vulnerability to specific hazards. These include hurricanes as well as other weather related hazards.Web Link: