PORTLAND, Maine — Weather forecasters tracking Hurricane Irene expect it could deliver as much as eight inches of rain and wind gusts of 60 mph when it reaches Maine late this weekend.

Senior meteorologist Paul Walker of Accuweather.com, based in State College, Pa., said Irene is expected to hit the Pine Tree State by late Sunday night or early Monday morning, with its entourage of smaller rainstorms to begin as early as Saturday night.

Walker said Wednesday the storm likely will be a Category 1 hurricane by the time it reaches New England, but will weaken into a tropical storm as it climbs into Maine. He said Irene will bring gusts of 60 mph and rain adding up to between four and eight inches.

“It looks like you’re pretty much in one of the favored track areas,” fellow Accuweather meteorologist Eric Leister told the Bangor Daily News.

Hurricane Irene reached Category 3 status on Wednesday while northeast of the Bahamas, and forecasters are expecting winds blowing 125 mph or more by the time it passes Florida and the Carolinas on Thursday.

From there, Leister said, Irene very well might cruise right up the Eastern Seaboard to Vacationland.

“It doesn’t look like it’ll be veering east like a lot of hurricanes do,” he said. “It looks like it’s going to come right through the state.”

Dennis Feltgen, spokesman for the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami, said it’s too early to tell what exact trajectory Irene will take as it whips north, but said because of the immense size of the storm, New Englanders should “make sure you have your hurricane supplies.”

Feltgen said the center forecasts the path of hurricanes five days out and feels most confident about the next 24 to 48 hours. Irene’s arrival in Maine isn’t due until the tail end of that forecast, he said.

“Even if the core of the storm stays offshore, it could have a serious impact in terms of wind and rain all the way up to New England,” he said. “It’s a rather large storm.”

Feltgen said tropical storm-force winds are being recorded 200 miles from the center of the storm — a good 50 to 75 miles farther out than an average storm. He warned that the heavy rains could saturate the ground and create flooding hazards and the winds could down tree limbs and wreak havoc on utility lines all the way to Maine.

He urged Mainers to follow the updated tracks of the storm vigilantly through the center’s website, hurricanes.gov.

Lynette Miller, spokeswoman for the Maine Emergency Management Agency, echoed the need for the public to stay informed. She said the agency’s website, MainePrepares.com, will keep updated information about the storm as well as preparedness tips.

“The biggest piece of advice we always put out front is: Please stay tuned,” Miller said. “Pay attention to the forecast. There’s a sense this will impact New England, but we really don’t know how this will impact us yet.”

John Carroll, spokesman for Central Maine Power Co., said his organization is receiving twice-daily updates from contracted weather forecasters. He said power company customers should call in outages, stock up with flashlights and bottled water and beware of downed utility lines.

“We’re tracking it closely,” Carroll said. “We have a storm emergency outage response plan that we actually rehearse periodically and use a few times a year. This storm may present some different challenges in terms of the wind and rain we’ll get, but we do have a response plan.

“We don’t generally have hurricane force winds up here,” he said. “We’ve had storms with isolated gusts of 60 and 70 [mph] some places along the coast, but a real hurricane is different from that with sustained winds. This time of year, with leaves on the trees and the ground getting saturated, it presents a different set of challenges. Once the storm starts, one of the hazards of being outside in a storm like that is there may be wires that come down. [People] need to stay clear of those and let us take care of them. You can’t tell if a wire is live or not.”

Irene’s anticipated arrival could dampen spirits on college campuses across Maine. The University of Maine System, Maine Maritime Academy, Unity College and the state’s community colleges are all scheduled to begin fall semester classes on Monday.

“We are keeping an eye on the situation,” said Joe Carr, spokesman for the University of Maine in Orono. “We will meet on Thursday to assess the situation and develop plans, as necessary.”

Carr said UMaine already has extensive emergency plans in place as well as backup generators that will keep the electricity flowing in many buildings, including dining halls and labs where a power failure could damage research projects. And a hurricane arriving on the first day of class might be easier to accommodate schedulewise than, say, a large snowstorm hitting campus during final exams, as happened several years ago.

BDN writer Kevin Miller contributed to this report.

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.