PROVIDENCIALES, Turks and Caicos – Hurricane Frances battered the Turks and Caicos islands with stinging rains and powerful winds Wednesday, peeling off tin roofs from wooden houses and knocking out power before churning toward the Bahamas and threatened Florida.
Frances was already a dangerous Category 4 hurricane, its 140 mph-winds bolstered by even stronger gusts, and forecasters said the storm could get even more powerful. They said Florida, still cleaning up after Hurricane Charley, was a “prime candidate” to be hit as early as Friday.
As the storm approached earlier in the day, scores of islanders fled their homes for higher ground. Club Med’s Turkoise resort moved all its guests to safer second-floor rooms as the hurricane passed.
The storm drenched the islands and downed electric lines and trees, knocking out power to Grand Turk Island on Wednesday afternoon, said Turks and Caicos Fire Chief Chris Gannon. Emergency workers rescued one woman from her home after the roof blew off.
“If we get through this without any loss of life, it will be a miracle,” Gannon said.
Cruiseships diverted traffic out of the storm’s path. Flights in and out of the Turks and Caicos were canceled, and many were expected to be canceled today in the nearby Bahamas, where residents in Nassau had started looting bottles of drinking water. The chain of more than 700 islands has a population of about 300,000 people.
With Frances expected to reach the southeastern Bahamas by today, Bahamas Prime Minister Perry Christie urged residents to remain calm but cautioned islanders they could see “the most intense hurricane in recorded history.”
Forecasters warned U.S. residents from Florida to the Carolinas to monitor Frances – the third major hurricane of the Atlantic season, following Alex and Charley.
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency, activating the National Guard and nearly a half-million people were ordered to evacuate their homes.
Floridians planning to ride out the storm snapped up canned food, water and generators, while military helicopters and planes were flown out of the area and Cape Canaveral’s Kennedy Space Center said it would close today.
“I can’t emphasize enough how powerful this is. If there’s something out there that’s going to weaken it, we haven’t seen it,” National Hurricane Center director Max Mayfield said.
There were no immediate reports of serious injury as the Turks and Caicos government urged islanders to evacuate and move to shelters. But most of the British territory’s 20,000 people were ignoring the call.
“Unfortunately a lot of communities are not taking this seriously,” Gannon said. “If we get through this without any loss of life, it will be a miracle.”
Structural damage was reported on the territory’s low-lying islands, where many houses are either wooden or have tin roofs, Gannon said. Police were going door-to-door and making telephone calls to urge people to move.
Residents flocked to schools for shelter in Providenciales, the main population and commercial center of the Turks and Caicos, about 140 miles north of Haiti. Some hospital patients were also being moved to the shelters.
In the Bahamas, residents blocked the entrance to Chelsea’s Choice Water company in Nassau, grabbing bottles from trucks and offering a driver bribes for water. The company’s manager called police for crowd control help.
“It’s pandemonium – madness!” said manager Tina Knowles.
The U.S. State Department issued a travel warning urging U.S. citizens to consider the potential risk of travel to the region.
About 200 nonemergency personnel and their family members working at the U.S. Embassy in Nassau and other U.S. government agencies in the Bahamas were being evacuated to the U.S. mainland, said Stacie Zerdecki, an embassy spokeswoman.
Club Med evacuated its Columbus Isle resort on San Salvador Island in the Bahamas because it was in the direct path of the storm, said Nadeige Martelly, a Club Med spokeswoman.
Hurricane warnings were in effect for the central and southeastern Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands. A hurricane watch was in effect for the central Bahamas.
At 8 p.m. Wednesday, the hurricane was about 40 miles northeast of Grand Caicos Island. Frances was moving west-northwest at about 14 mph.
Frances passed to the north of Puerto Rico on Tuesday. Puerto Rico saw only moderate rain and winds, and lightning that knocked out electricity to about 17,000 people.