Hurricane Joaquin began swiftly moving away from the Bahamas Saturday, after two days of heavy rains and winds that caused major floods, destroyed homes and left a 790-foot cargo ship with more than 30 crew members missing.
At 5 a.m. Sunday, the National Hurricane Center said Joaquin had 120 mph winds and was headed northeast at 20 mph. The track has the storm moving away from the United States but headed toward Bermuda. The storm is 250 miles southwest of Bermuda, where conditions are beginning to deteriorate, according to the hurricane center.
A hurricane warning was issued for Bermuda. The island could begin feeling tropical storm conditions by later Sunday morning with potential hurricane conditions coming later in the day.
The hurricane center said strong winds and rain would continue to batter parts of the central and southeastern Bahamas.
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The U.S. Coast Guard also continued its search Saturday for the El Faro. The cargo ship with a 33-person crew, including 28 Americans, has been missing since Thursday.
Two Coast Guard HC-130 airplanes and a U.S. Navy P-8 aircraft headed into the area multiple times Saturday, said Lt. Commander Gabe Somma. An HC-144 aircraft was also sent out Saturday morning to assess damage in the Bahamas.
At around 7:30 p.m. Saturday, the Coast Guard announced that it had located a life ring belonging to the ship — but still no sign of the ship itself.
Coast Guard Petty Ofc. Jon-Paul Rios said the life ring discovery shows that search crews are in the right vicinity, and it could be that the life ring simply blew off the ship during the storm.
“Anything could have happened,” he said. “We’ll be out there again tomorrow morning, at first light.”
The crew of the El Faro sent a mayday call at about 7:30 a.m. Thursday as the ship, owned by TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico, made 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.
“TOTE Maritime continues to work closely with the U.S. Coast Guard and all available resources to locate and establish communication with the El Faro,” Tim Nolan, president of TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico, said in a statement.
Search efforts were initially called off at dark Friday night but resumed early Saturday. Coast Guard cutters also made their way into the still choppy waters.
“It’s obviously concerning that we haven’t heard from the ship in more than 48 hours,” Somma said. “Our men and women are pushing hard to find them.”
With the hurricane’s track shifting east, concerns about heavy rains and flooding from it were easing for the U.S. coast. Still, officials cautioned that the storm could trigger dangerous rip currents.
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 outer islands on the chain’s eastern side.
Capt. Stephen Russell, director of the Bahamas National Emergency Management Agency, said the last storm to hover over the Bahamas for so long was Hurricane Wilma in 2005.
The agency reported that more than 200 people have been sheltered primarily in Eleuthera and San Salvador. Flooding was reported in Acklins and in some parts of Long Island.
The agency is requesting food, water, emergency shelter and damage assessment support along with water and sewage restoration assistance.
Bahamasair announced Saturday that flights to all Florida gateways, Nassau, Freeport, Exuma, Grand Bahama and other islands had resumed service. However, there was still no service to Long Island, San Salvador, Acklins, Crooked Island, Mayaguana and Inagua.
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.
Richard Stanczyk, owner of the well-known Bud N Mary’s Sportfishing Marina in the Florida Keys, was among those who experienced the storm in the Bahamas. Stanczyk and his brother Scott, a boat captain, were vacationing in Long Island. The family was having a great time — scoring catches such as blue marlin and wahoo — when Joaquin hit.
Richard Stanczyk rode out the storm in the lower floors of his rental home, which lost its roof during Joaquin, according to Stephen Byrd, an assistant manager at Bud N Mary’s. Scott Stanczyk rode out the storm in a rental car, joined by his first mate, after the roof of their hotel blew off, Byrd said. Byrd said he talked to Scott Stanczyk via satellite phone during that ordeal.
“They were just like ‘Hey, what’s happening? How much longer is thing going to be on top of us?’ ” Byrd said. “They held it together, they were good soldiers, but they definitely had a scary time of it.”
In the next few days, the Stanczyks hope to get back to the Keys on their boat, Catch 22, which suffered some damage during the storm but is still mechanically sound. The two brothers are back on the boat, and thanks to generators, they’ve got electricity again.
“We all feel really blessed here,” Byrd said. “It looked really bad.”
The Associated Press and Miami Herald staff writer Michael Vasquez contributed to this report.