Hurricane Joaquin continued hammering the Bahamas early Friday but began turning toward the north, taking a track that should steer clear of the U.S. coast.
At 11 a.m. Friday, the National Hurricane Center said the dangerous Category 4 storm would likely batter the Bahamas until tonight. New computer models aim the storm further east, away from the Carolinas and the heavily populated New Jersey-New York area, which had been devastated by Superstorm Sandy. The latest track takes the storm closer to Bermuda, keeping hurricane winds well offshore of the East Coast as it slowly weakens to a Category 1 by Sunday, then tropical storm by midweek.
Forecasters expect the track to shift even further east, reducing the threat of heavy rains and flooding that raised earlier concerns. Still, they caution the storm could trigger dangerous rip currents.
In the Bahamas, Joaquin ripped off roofs, uprooted trees and unleashed heavy flooding across the eastern and central islands on Friday
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Communications were cut to several islands, most of them lightly populated. But there were no reports of fatalities or injuries, said Capt. Stephen Russell, the director of the Bahamas National Emergency Management Agency.
Residents reached by relatives said they were “trapped in their homes, and reported feeling as if their structures were caving in,” Russell said. “It’s too dangerous to go outside because the flood waters are so high, so we ask that persons stay inside and try to go into the most secure place of their home.”
Power also was knocked out to several islands, and Leslie Miller, executive chairman of the Bahamas Electricity Corporation, said the company “is in no position to do much” to restore electricity. “All the airports are flooded,” he said.
Schools, businesses and government offices were closed as the slow-moving storm roared through the island chain.
Streets were largely deserted as people remained hunkered down on the island of Eleuthera, which was bracing for heavy winds later Friday. Some people were still making last-minute preparations, including Alexander Johnson, 61, who was moving his fishing boat with his brother, Solomon.
There were no immediate reports of injuries or deaths but the prolonged pounding was likely to increase damage. Reports were sketchy, but on Long Island — at the edge of Joaquin’s powerful eyewall Thursday evening — homes and streets were flooded from storm surge and on Acklins Island just to the south, flooding was so bad that most of the nearly 600 residents couldn’t get out of their homes. Joaquin wasn’t expected to pull away from the Bahamas until later Friday evening.
“They are under the gun,” said Capt. Stephen Russell, director of the Bahamas National Emergency Management Agency. director.
The slow-moving storm was located about five miles south of Rum Cay in the Bahamas at 11 a.m. moving at just 3 mph but should pick up speed during the day. Forecasters say central and southeastern islands will continue to experience fierce winds, averaging about 130 mph through the day, and dangerous flooding. A storm surge in the central Bahamas could reach six to 12 feet high on top of 12 to 18 inches of rain. Some areas may get as much as 25 inches.
The powerful storm was expected to generate a potentially deadly storm surge, increased from earlier advisories to six to 12 feet, that could unleash life-threatening flash floods, forecasters said. Near shore, the storm could kick up lethal waves. The wet storm is also expected to dump between 12 and 18 inches of rain over the region, with up to 25 inches possible in some areas.
Photos posted on social media Thursday as Joaquin was still approaching showed several feet of water surrounding homes on Long Island, home to a few thousand people on the eastern edge of the central Bahamas.
“It’s rough right now,” said Maxwell Burrows, 55, reached by phone from his home on Long Island. “The Internet is down. We don’t have any power and we are getting bad hurricane winds right now.”
Burrows, a tile layer, said even Superstorm Sandy in 2012, which caused damage across the island, wasn’t as bad. “What I’m scared of is that the storm is taking so long to go; it’s like it’s not moving,” he said.
Joaquin was indeed crawling, moving at just 3 mph Friday, almost stalled as it waited for an approaching front that forecasters expected to sweep it north and away from the Bahamas. Forecasters say the storm should start to speed up later today.
Cindy Bock who lived in the Salt Pond section of Long Island, said Thursday the rain pains were sporadic through late afternoon but she feared there would be a lot of damage if forecasters were right and Joaquin parked itself overhead for another day.
“This is a farming and fishing community and it will impact it quite hard,” said Bock, an American retiree who moved to the island with her husband, Don, 17 years ago.
Over in Rum Cay, resident Jacqueline Nottage said she didn’t start boarding up until Thursday morning when she heard Joaquin was strengthening. By 4:30 p.m. the island still had power and the eye had not yet passed over, Nottage said.
“There isn’t much rain, but we can’t go outside because of the breeze,” she said. “The sea already started coming over the road and into some houses. We just got to give God thanks and hope for the best.”
Hurricane winds extended 50 miles from the storm’s center while tropical storm winds reached about 205 miles, sending swells that have begun pounding the southeast U.S. coast. The swells are likely to spread north over the weekend. Even if the storm misses the U.S. entirely, the coast could see a prolonged period of high water and large waves that could cause significant beach erosion.
Though Joaquin’s proximity was unsettling for South Florida residents, none of the array of computer models used by forecasters showed the storm affecting the state. Even if Joaquin stays offshore, much of the East Coast could get hit with strong winds that could whip up coastal flooding, heavy surf and more rain . The mid-Atlantic could see significant beach erosion along with moderate coastal flooding, forecasters said. The Carolinas, already saturated from previous storms, also could see more rain and damaging flooding.
Joaquin is the first major threat to the East Coast since Superstorm Sandy in 2012, which came ashore just north of Atlantic City and ultimately caused $75 billion in damage, making it the second costliest storm in U.S. history.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.