Weakened Hurricane Frances tears through Bahamas, heading for Florida | NevadaAppeal.com

Weakened Hurricane Frances tears through Bahamas, heading for Florida

Associated Press Writer

FREEPORT, Bahamas (AP) – Howling winds from Hurricane Frances toppled trees and left a path of debris Friday in the Bahamas’ capital of Nassau as it churned toward the island chain’s other main commercial hub on a path for Florida.

The hurricane’s maximum sustained winds dropped from 145 mph to 120 mph during the night, prompting forecasters to downgrade it to a Category 3. But Frances still brought tropical storm-force winds to Nassau that knocked out power and pounded the island with rough surf.

Streets were deserted. Fallen trees, debris and satellite dishes that had been yanked from their mountings littered roadways in the city, which is on New Providence Island and home to more than two-thirds of the country’s 300,000 people. The hurricane was expected to hit Freeport later Friday.

“While intensity has decreased a little bit overnight, it’s still a major Category 3 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale and has the potential to regain its former strength,” said Jamie Rhome, a meteorologist at the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami.

Fearful residents of the Bahamas’ biggest cities boarded their homes and hunkered down inside or fled to shelters to ride out the storm, a day after it battered the nation’s sparsely populated southeastern islands on Thursday.

Guests at the 2,300-room Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island, outside of Nassau, were told to leave their rooms and stay in a conference room.

“I came for a week of sunshine and beaches in the Bahamas and can’t believe this happening,” said Jo Pain, a 37-year-old toy buyer from London. “It’s frightening. The rain is pelting down, the winds are incredible and it’s so loud out there.”

Sustained winds of 45 mph whipped through the streets of Nassau, with gusts of up to 75 mph and stronger winds expected. Intermittent downpours and gusts reached Freeport on Grand Bahama Island, where emergency administrator Alexander E. Williams said about 1,700 people checked in to shelters set up in schools and churches.

“We’re scared, really,” said Maxine Skinner, 45, a tourist visiting from Reading, England, who was evacuated from a beachfront resort and spent the night in a church. “We don’t know how far the water’s going to rise.”

On Thursday the hurricane hit the sparsely populated southeastern Bahamas. Towering waves and winds of 120 mph were reported on San Salvador Island, which is home to more than 900 people, but no major damage or deaths were reported. Electricity and phone services were down on Long Island, which has about 3,000 residents.

Emergency officials said a high school’s roof on Long Island had been ripped off and residents were reporting severe damage to crops.

Teams were out assessing damage. Most buildings in the Bahamas are built of concrete, stone or other heavy materials to withstand winds of up to 125 mph.

As the storm’s eye approached the outlying island of Eleuthera on Friday, sustained winds of 100 mph were reported.

Cruise ships were diverted out of Frances’ path and many beachfront hotels were evacuated across the chain of more than 700 islands.

The hurricane brushed past Crooked Island and Acklins Island – home to about 1,100 people – late Thursday, knocking out power and phones but doing only minimal damage, said Alfred Gray, the agriculture and fisheries minister.

People in other low-lying areas were urged to evacuate. Some islands were seeing the sea rise by 6 to 14 feet.

When Hurricane Floyd blew through the Bahamas in 1999, it flooded neighborhoods, left the Grand Bahama airport underwater and closed many hotels.

Officials said Frances left only minor damage in the Turks and Caicos Islands on Wednesday, damaging more than a dozen houses. One woman was rescued when her roof blew off, but the eye missed the heart of the British territory.

The U.S. Embassy in Nassau evacuated about 200 non-emergency employees and their families as Frances neared.

At 8 a.m. Friday, the hurricane’s eye was over Eleuthera Island and about 260 miles east-southeast of Florida, moving west-northwest at 9 mph.

A hurricane warning was up for most of Florida’s east coast, stretching more than 300 miles. About 2.5 million residents were told to clear out – the biggest evacuation request in the state’s history.

Forecasters said the brunt of the hurricane could begin to hit Florida early Saturday, less than three weeks after Hurricane Charley raked Florida’s western coast with 145 mph winds, causing billions of dollars in damage and killing 27 people.

Meanwhile, a new tropical depression formed far out in the Atlantic, with winds near 30 mph and higher gusts.

Associated Press writers Dominic Duncombe and Adam Jankiewicz in Nassau, contributed to this report.

On the Net:

National Hurricane Center: http://www.nhc.noaa.gov

Crown Weather Services: http://www.crownweather.com/tropical.html