One year after Hurricane Joaquin battered the central and southeastern Bahamas, Hurricane Matthew promised to unleash a powerful storm surge and torrential rainfall upon the country with the same fury.
Evacuations of some of the Bahamas’ most vulnerable islands to the south were underway Wednesday afternoon as conditions deteriorated. Matthew, a Category 3 storm, with winds of 120 mph, was blamed for 11 deaths in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, as well as widespread flooding in the Caribbean.
Warnings were issued for most of the country’s islands, including the Inaguas, Mayaguana, Acklins, Crooked Island, Long Cay, and Ragged Island, Long Island, Exuma, Rum Cay, San Salvador, and Cat Island. Warnings were also issued for the northwestern Bahamas: the Abacos, Andros Island, Berry Islands, Bimini, Eleuthera, Grand Bahama Island, and New Providence.
The storm passed over the Inaguas Wednesday afternoon, the country’s southernmost island where there were reports of flooding but no serious damage.
“It was quite an experience,’’ said James Moss, a police officer who lives in an area of Great Inaguas called Matthew Town.
“There was this noise from the fierce winds and rough seas coming across the basin area,’’ Moss said. Most of the town was prepared and many people moved inland onto higher ground.
“Everybody took it serious,’’ he said.
New Providence, the country’s smallest but most populous island, was projected to get a direct hit, the first major hurricane to directly strike the island since 1929. Prime Minister Perry Christie urged residents to evacuate southern coasts and move into shelters set up across the country.
"If you live on the southern coast of any islands you will be at risk," Christie said in a statement to the Nassau Guardian. "Seriously consider now moving to higher grounds. Natural phenomena can be violently unpredictable."
Christie said he hoped people would heed the evacuation advisory but said the government is prepared to force people out of their homes if it is warranted.
New Providence, where 85 percent of the country’s residents live, includes the nation’s capital city, Nassau. The Bahamas have a population of 370,000 and more than 700 islands, cays and islets, not all of them inhabited.
On Wednesday afternoon, Nassau residents were boarding up their homes and businesses, as people in coastal areas of the island were being evacuated inland.
Bruce LeFleur, an architect who was born and raised in Nassau, described residents as being cautiously optimistic yet solemn about what is to come.
“It’s coming and usually, we’ve been very lucky, it always turns away, but it doesn’t look like that this time,’’ he said.
Electricity was scheduled to be turned off as a safety precaution, and people were particularly concerned about flooding since the island, which is 21 miles long and 7 miles wide, is relatively flat and low-lying.
“The weather has already changed. It’s getting very dark and people are still battening up,’’ said Bishop Walter Hanchell of Great Commission Ministries, a consortium of churches. His parish ministers to some of the poorest on the island, many of whom live in ramshackle homes made of wood and shaky roofing.
“Many people are afraid,’’ he said. “They’ve never been this afraid.’’
Hanchell was hammering away, putting up plywood and stocking up on supplies. A storm the size of Matthew could bring 15-foot swells, which would be devastating to the island.
“It’s densely populated and housing is bad. Most people don’t have good roofs, and the area is a lot of poor and struggling people,’’ said Hanchell, whose church is in the Wulff Road area of Nassau.
Nassau was spared from Joaquin, which slammed the country’s southeastern islands with 155 mph winds, causing $120 million in damage over two days. Those who live on those islands, were even more on edge Wednesday, since many residents were still recovering from last year’s storm.
Jane Knowles, 78, of Mangrove Bush in Long Island, recalled how she lost almost everything when she returned to her low-lying home after Joaquin tore through last October.
“The saltwater was eight foot high in my house,” she told the Bahamian newspaper Tribune242.
This time, with the help of her children and grandchildren, Knowles removed everything but the toilet from her house and stored her belongings in a nearby trailer.
“I feel all shook up,” she said, explaining that last year’s hurricane experience has her neighbors more worried.
“This time everyone is more alert. We’re battening up and down but still aware of the possibility that there will be damage because water can do anything,” said another resident, Sandy Knowles.
Miami Herald staff writers Jordan Levin, Audra D.S. Burch and Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report.