Hurricane Matthew raked across the Bahamas’ main northern islands with its full Category 4 force on Thursday, tearing off roofs, toppling trees and power lines, flooding homes and marooning residents and tourists in the capital of Nassau and other towns.
By Thursday evening, weather.com said, the town of Freeport was reporting sustained winds of 100 mph, with gusts up to 121 mph, as the storm’s northern eyewall passed over the western half of Grand Bahama Island on its way to Florida. The website said the northwest Bahamas could expect dangerous conditions to persist through Friday morning because of the hurricane’s extensive winds.
Matthew, which pounded the more lightly populated southern Bahamas starting Wednesday night as a Category 3 hurricane, strengthened by one category as it churned on a northwestern route over the warm waters of the archipelago on Thursday morning. By the time the storm’s center hit the nation’s most populous island, New Providence, just before midday, winds had escalated to 140 mph. It was the first major hurricane to strike Nassau and New Providence, home to the bulk of the Bahamas’ population of 375,000, since 1929.
“We got hit very, very hard,” said Bishop Walter Hanchell, a minister in one of Nassau’s impoverished communities, as Matthew charged across the city early Thursday afternoon. “People are stuck in their homes, trees are down, roofs are down.’’
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Hanchell said he was fielding panicked calls from parishioners trapped by floodwaters and begging for rescue. One man told him he was on top of a dresser in his home, which was inundated by seven feet of water.
“We will need more food and more water,” Hanchell said.
The Bahamas National Emergency Management Agency said authorities rescued at least 30 people who were trapped in their homes by floodwaters on New Providence.
The reports of extensive wind damage and flooding from New Providence were in contrast to early reports from islands to the south and east of it, like Great Exuma, that suggested damage and injuries were limited, though that picture could change as power returns and communications are re-established. One 69-year-old Exuma resident fell and broke a hip while putting shutters up, but local authorities told the Nassau Guardian and Tribune242 that those southern communities appeared to have fared “pretty well” during the storm.
As the storm plowed through the Bahamas, Prime Minister Perry Christie called on residents living on the exposed southern shores of islands to move inland to higher ground because of storm surges expected to rise to as much as 15 feet. But some chose to ride the storm out at home in spite of the warning. On southern New Providence, residents of Faith Garden were forced to flee their homes by a rapid surge of water, the Guardian reported.
In Nassau, the Department of Meteorology had to be evacuated to the Nassau Airport by firetruck after a window shutter came loose and the window glass was shattered by wind, the Guardian reported. The roof of Smith’s Hotel in Nassau was blown off and guests were evacuated by the Royal Bahamas Defence Force, Tribune242 said.
Across the island chain, ports and airports were closed and cruise ships were diverted elsewhere. At the massive Atlantis Paradise Island resort, 2,000 stranded visitors and guests were herded into ballrooms for safety during the storm’s duration. The hotel reported receiving “little damage” but generator problems were preventing guests from returning to rooms in the Beach Tower.
The Riu Palace hotel, also on Nassau’s Paradise Island, sustained extensive exterior damage, with part of the facade ripped off, exposing rooms, but there were no reports of injuries, according to Tribune242.
The country’s tourism-dependent economy was bracing for big losses. Geneva Cooper, senior director of hotel licensing, said officials at the Ministry of Tourism estimate roughly $1.8 million in lost revenue, as she announced that all cruise lines due to arrive in the country had been diverted to “other destinations” in anticipation of the Category 4 storm.
Matthew’s direct strike on the Bahamas came almost a year to the day after Hurricane Joaquin devastated the southern Bahamas islands of Crooked Island, Rum Cay, Long Island and San Salvador, among others. Flooding persisted for days after the storm’s departure. Joaquin spared the northern islands that now appear to have borne the brunt of Matthew.
This report was supplemented with information from the Associated Press.