A large and powerful Hurricane Irene roared across the Bahamas archipelago on Wednesday, pummeling the country's smaller, less-populated islands while posing less of a threat to the capital, a major tourist destination with 200,000 residents.
There were no immediate reports of major injuries or deaths but property damage appeared likely to be extensive on Acklins and Crooked islands, in the southern part of the chain, said Capt. Stephen Russell, director of the country's National Emergency Management Agency.
A settlement known as Lovely Bay was destroyed while at least 40 homes were badly damaged on the island of Mayaguana, the agency said. Authorities were still gathering damage reports and there were few details on the destruction.
Major damage was also anticipated on the island of Eleuthera, which was being battered Thursday morning, as well as Rum Cay and Cat Island. All were expected to have full and extended exposure to Hurricane Irene's powerful winds, which had weakened slightly Thursday to 115 mph (185 kph).
"That can be devastating for some of those islands," Russell said.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida, warned Thursday that an "extremely dangerous storm surge will raise water levels by as much as 7 to 11 feet (2 to 3 meters) above normal tide levels over the Bahamas."
"The surge will be accompanied by large and dangerous waves," and Irene is expected to dump from 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 centimeters) of rain on the islands over the next day and a half, the center said on its website.
Irene's core was forecast to continue moving over the northwestern Bahamas on Thursday before heading north toward the U.S. coast, with its current path possibly bringing it to North Carolina's Outer Banks by Saturday afternoon.
A hurricane watch was issued early Thursday for much of the North Carolina coast. A hurricane watch means hurricane conditions are possible within 36 hours. Also, a tropical storm watch was issued for much of South Carolina's coast.
As of 8 a.m. EDT (1200 GMT), the Category 3 hurricane was centered about 65 miles (105 kilometers) east-northeast of the Bahamian capital, Nassau. Forecasters said the winds will ramp up quickly and Irene was expected to blow into a monstrous Category 4 with winds of at least 131 mph (210 mph).
Forecasters said Nassau, on New Providence, would see tropical storm-force winds no greater than 65 mph (104 kph) because the storm track had shifted and it was not getting the direct hit that many had feared. The island is the most populated, with more than 200,000 people, and is a major tourist destination.
This storm was only the third since 1866 to cross the entire length of the island chain and Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham said the country was bracing for extensive damage to buildings and infrastructure. But he predicted few casualties overall.
"As a general statement we do a fair job of managing hurricanes so personal injuries, we hope, will not be substantial," he said in an interview with The Associated Press. "Property damage, vegetation, public infrastructure, yes, but as a general statement we would hope that personal injuries would be minimized."
Still, the storm could cause problems. Trevor M. Basden, senior deputy director of the country's Department of Meteorology, said New Providence could expect to be buffeted with fierce winds until Thursday evening. "That is quite of bit of time to be experiencing tropical storm-force winds," he said.
Authorities set up emergency shelters throughout the country but most locals were expected to stay in their own homes or with friends and family while visitors stayed in the handful of hotels that remained open.
As darkness fell Wednesday and the first strong winds and rain began to lash the city, the streets were largely deserted. Earlier, the capital buzzed with last-minute preparations as people gathered what supplies were still available and shop owners boarded up their windows. Nassau, surrounded by sparkling greenish-blue waters, is known to flood even in heavy rain so the storm surge was expected to make many roads impassable, especially in the colonial downtown.
Many visitors weren't waiting around to find out what would happen and fled the country, waiting in long lines to catch planes before the airport closed. Some tourists had no choice but to leave since smaller hotels abruptly closed and larger ones were booked up with Bahamian residents looking for a place to ride out the storm. Others flying out simply didn't want to take their chances with what could be a major storm.
Irene barreled through the Turks and Caicos Islands late Tuesday as a Category 1 hurricane, blowing off some roofs, flooding roads and downing power lines, said Emily Malcolm, district commissioner for South Caicos island.
Puerto Rico, which also was hit by Irene, is still struggling with heavy flooding that has stranded motorists and affected several neighborhoods. Dozens of landslides have been reported and 765 people remain in shelters, Gov. Luis Fortuno told a news conference Wednesday, two days after he declared a state of emergency.
On Tuesday, a 62-year-old woman died at a hospital after trying to cross a swollen river in her car near the capital of San Juan, police said.
In the Dominican Republic, flooding, rising rivers and mudslides prompted the government to evacuate nearly 38,000 people. Authorities said a 40-year-old man was killed when floodwaters destroyed his home in Cambita, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) west of Santo Domingo, and a 42-year-old Haitian migrant drowned in a surging river near the city of El Seibo.
Impoverished Haiti was left "relatively unscathed," with only isolated damage from flooding, the United Nations said.
Associated Press writers Danica Coto in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Ezequiel Abiu Lopez in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and Megan Reynolds in Nassau, Bahamas, contributed to this report.