Joaquin pulls away from Bahamas; ship still missing at sea

Hurricane Joaquin began slowly moving away from the Bahamas early Saturday morning, finally easing a two-day long assault that flooded and destroyed home and left a 735-foot cargo ship missing.

At 8 a.m., the National Hurricane Center said Joaquin remained a major Category 3 hurricane with 125 mph winds but it was beginning to move more quickly toward the northeast at 13 mph. That should gradually improve conditions in the Bahamas, allowing the islands to assess damage and the U.S. Coast Gaurd to continue a search for the El Faro, a cargo ship with a crew of 33 that included 28 Americans. The latest track forecast also continued to keep Joaquin far from the U.S. coast but put Bermuda more at risk.

On Friday, a Coast Guard C-130 airplane repeatedly flew into the storm to search for the ship, struggling against Joaquin’s powerful winds, said Lt. Commander Gabe Somma.

“This vessel appears very close to where the eye of the storm appears to be, and we cannot send our aircraft into the eye,” he said. “They’re working as hard as they can, but they are pushing the envelope.”

The crew of the El Faro sent a mayday call about 7:30 a.m. Thursday as it was making its way from Jacksonville to Puerto Rico and lost propulsion near Crooked Island. A satellite report sent by the crew said the ship had taken on water and was listing at a 15-degree angle. The Coast Guard alerted two Air Force hurricane hunter planes flying over the storm, but the planes were unable to make contact, Somma said. The C-130 then searched throughout the day, returning only to refuel.

Search efforts were called off at dark Friday night but will resume at daylight, Somma said. Coast Guard cutters were also making their way to the area but were slowed by Joaquin’s fierce winds.

“We’ll be hitting this thing very hard in the morning,” he said.

With the hurricane’s track shifting east, concerns about impacts of heavy rains and flooding are easing for the U.S. coast. Still, they cautioned that the storm could still trigger dangerous rip currents.

But Joaquin could prove to be one of the worst storms to hit the Bahamas. No major injuries had been reported as of late Friday but communication was out to many of the hardest hit and sparsely populated out islands on the chain’s eastern side. Several islands — Long, Crooked and Acklins — sat at the edge of Joaquin Cat 4 eye when it all but stalled Thursday and Friday.

The initial damage reports said roofs were ripped off, trees uprooted and utility poles downed. With high winds still hammering the island, it was too early to tell how widespread damage might be.

“As the hurricane continues to cross some of our small islands, we are eagerly awaiting to hear about the outcome,” said Capt. Stephen Russell, director of the Bahamas National Emergency Management Agency.

Nearly two dozen homes in a settlement on Crooked Island were destroyed on Thursday, said Marvin Hanna, an Acklins representative.

“At that time, vehicles were floating around and the water level was up to the windows of some homes,” he said.

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 floodwaters are so high, so we ask that persons stay inside and try to go into the most secure place of their home.”

The storm also unleashed heavy flooding across the eastern and central islands, cutting off roads in San Salvador and elsewhere.

“We have structural damages to homes and private properties,” Russell said.

The last time storm to hover for so long over the Bahamas was Wilma in 2005, Russell said.

“We hope we can get rid of this system by Saturday afternoon so we can get on with our initial assessments throughout the islands and our relief efforts,” he said.

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 remained closed as the storm pummeled the island chain. It could take several days for emergency crews to make full damage assessments on some islands.

The Bermuda Weather Service issued a tropical storm warning and a hurricane watch for Bermuda. A tropical storm warning means that tropical storm conditions are expected somewhere within the warning area. For Bermuda, the tropical storm conditions are expected within the next 36 hours.

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.

Jenny Staletovich: 305-376-2109, @jenstaletovich

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