Hurricane Frances churned its way toward the Bahamas today after forcing hundreds of people to flee their homes in the nearby British territory of Turks and Caicos as the Caribbean faced one of its strongest storms in years.
More than million people in Florida, where a state of emergency was declared, were told the evacuate their homes.
States of emergency were also declared in Georgia and the Carolinas.
Frances is predicted to hit the US coast with winds of up to 156 mph on Friday night.
The hurricane’s lashing winds of more than 145 mph tore tin roofs off houses and plucked trees from the ground as it hit the Turks and Caicos.
No injuries were reported but hundreds fled their homes and many telephone lines were still down, said Karen Delancy, with the Turks and Caicos Emergency Management Service.
More than a dozen houses were damaged, and one woman was rescued after her house’s roof blew off, said Fire Chief Chris Gannon.
Many of the territory’s 20,000 residents ignored the call to evacuate.
Cruise ships fled the storm’s path. In the nearby Bahamas, residents scurried to collect bottles of drinking water today as dozens waited at airports. The chain of more than 700 islands has a population of about 300,000 people.
Forecasters warned Americans from Florida to the Carolinas to monitor Frances - the third major hurricane of the Atlantic season, following Alex and Charley.
Frances already could be felt in the south-eastern Bahamas this morning. Government officials were still trying to assess the damage in the southern islands.
Bahamas Prime Minister Perry Christie urged islanders to remain calm, but cautioned islanders they could see “the most intense hurricane in recorded history”.
The US embassy in Nassau evacuated about 200 non-emergency personnel and their family members, said Stacie Zerdecki, an embassy spokeswoman. Hundreds of others also fled as schools and public offices closed and bolted their doors shut.
The Bahamian islands of Eleuthera and Grand Bahamas were expected to see storm surge flooding of between six to 14 feet above normal tide levels.
For some, panic began to set when a group of residents blocked the entrance to Chelsea’s Choice Water in Nassau, grabbing bottles off trucks and offering bribes to the driver.
“It’s pandemonium. Madness!” said Tina Knowles, manager of Chelsea’s Choice, who called the police to control the crowd.
At 4pm Irish time today, the hurricane was about 55 miles south-east of San Salvador Island in the Bahamas, and about 450 miles east of Florida.
More than a million Florida coastal residents were told to flee today in advance of Frances, which could be the mightiest storm to hit the state in a decade.
Florida Governor Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency, and called up the National Guard.
The hurricane warning covered most of the state’s eastern coast. Most of the residents who were told to leave were in South Florida – 300,000 in Palm Beach County, 250,000 in Broward County and 320,000 in Miami-Dade County.
States of emergency were declared in Georgia and Florida.
Forecasters said the hurricane could hit on Labour Day holiday weekend as early as Friday night, less than three weeks after Charley raked Florida’s western coast with 145 mph winds, killing 27 people and causing billions pounds in damage.