NASSAU, Bahamas - A large and powerful Hurricane Irene roared across the Bahamas archipelago on Wednesday, knocking down trees and destroying homes on a path that officials said posed the greatest threat to the country's smaller, less-populated islands.
There were no immediate reports of major injuries or deaths but property damage appeared likely to be extensive. Acklins and Crooked islands, in the southern part of the chain, got hit particularly hard, with an estimated 90 percent of the homes in two settlements severely damaged or destroyed, said Capt. Stephen Russell, director of the country's National Emergency Management Agency.
Russell said he was getting "disturbing reports" from the two islands, each of which has a population of several hundred, but that he was not yet able to get a full assessment.
Authorities were also expecting major damage on the islands of Rum Cay, Eleuthera and Cat Island, which were all expected to have full and extended exposure to Hurricane Irene's 120 mph (193 kph) winds.
"That can be devastating for some of those islands," Russell said.
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 that had crossed 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 for what was expected to be a rough next few days.
As darkness fell in the capital, 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 last-minute supplies were still available and shop owners boarded up their windows. Nassau, which surrounded by sparkling greenish-blue ocean, 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.
"I've been through one hurricane and I don't want to see another," said Susan Hooper of Paris, Illinois, who was cutting short a trip with her husband, Marvin, to celebrate their 23rd wedding anniversary. "My main concern is what if something happened to the airport. How would I get home?"
Maureen Fallon, a 39-year-old consultant from Annapolis, Maryland, was forced to abandon a trip with six friends through the Bahamas archipelago on a 47-foot (14-meter) catamaran. They tried rerouting the boat as the storm developed but gave up less than halfway through after the U.S. State Department issued a warning to travelers.
"I'm pretty bummed," she said. "But there was just no way. It was way too dangerous."
Meghan Stark, traveling with her mother and 5-year-old son, arrived at the airport exhausted and frustrated after their hotel closed and told all guests to leave, less than 24 hours after first telling them the storm was not likely to pose a major threat to Nassau.
Stark, a college student from Baldwin, New York, arrived in the Bahamas on Monday for a weeklong stay that had already been delayed after a storm in New York postponed their flight for two days. Staff at their hotel, Sandyport Beaches Resort, initially reassured them that the storm wasn't a major danger.
"We had asked them when we got here about the storm and they said, 'Don't worry about it, these things blow over,'" she said.
Less than 24 hours later, Stark and her family found their room keys not working and the staff telling them to clear out. They spent the night racking up an expensive cell phone bill trying to book a flight out. At one point, they considered and rejected the option of staying in a refuge being set up in one of the larger hotels. On Wednesday morning, they were forced to leave early.
By Wednesday night, Irene was centered about 150 miles (245 kilometers) east-southeast of Nassau with winds of 120 mph (195 kph). Hurricane force winds extended about 60 miles (95 kilometers) from its center.
Irene was expected to become a Category 4 hurricane by Thursday as it passes over the northwestern Bahamas en route to the eastern U.S. coast, said the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida.
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 have 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 42 kilometers west of Santo Domingo, and a 42-year-old Haitian migrant drowned in a surging river near the city of El Seibo.
Juan Manuel Mendez, director of the Central Emergency Operations Center, said more slides were likely in coming days because of days of intense rain from the storm system.
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, APTN senior producer Fernando Gonzalez in Baracoa, Cuba, and Megan Reynolds in Nassau, Bahamas, contributed to this report.