FREEPORT, Bahamas -- The ferocious winds of Hurricane Frances flung debris and kicked up 15-foot waves in the sparsely populated southeastern Bahamas yesterday, while residents in the main population centers of Nassau and Freeport rushed to prepare for the worst storm in five years.
Most buildings in the Bahamas are built of concrete, stone, or other heavy materials to withstand winds of up to 125 miles per hour. But the Category 4 storm's lashing 145 mph winds had Bahamians crowded outside hardware stores, loading plywood and other materials onto pickups.
"I've never seen a hurricane of this magnitude," Simeon Robinson, 52, said as his son boarded up their apartment in Freeport. "Even the building code, which is one of the strictest in the region, is not designed to protect against winds of this magnitude."
At midafternoon yesterday, Frances was centered over San Salvador Island and Long Island, which have a combined population of about 4,000 and lie 190 miles south of Nassau, the capital.
Waves of more than 15 feet were reported on San Salvador; electricity and phone service was down on Long Island. Minor structural damage also was reported.
The storm tore tin roofs off houses and plucked trees from the ground in the Turks and Caicos Islands on Wednesday, forcing hundreds to move to shelters or higher ground.
Teams were out in both the Turks and Caicos and the southeastern Bahamas assessing damage. No deaths or injuries had been reported.
Bahamas Prime Minister Perry Christie urged Bahamians to remain calm, but warned they could see "the most intense hurricane in recorded history."
Forecasters said the storm's eye was heading toward Nassau on New Providence Island, home to more than two-thirds of the country's 300,000 people. "The worst of it is expected overnight or Friday morning," said Neil Stuart, a meteorologist at the US National Hurricane Center in Miami.
Cruise ships diverted traffic out of Frances' path, and hotels in the Bahamas were either empty or else full of guests saddled up to bars waiting for the storm. Dozens waited at airports trying to leave but most flights were canceled in the Bahamas, a chain of more than 700 islands.
People in low-lying parts of the Bahamas were urged to evacuate. Some islands were expected to see a storm surge of six to 14 feet.
When Hurricane Floyd blew through the Bahamas in 1999, it left the Grand Bahama airport under water and closed beachfront hotels from San Salvador Island to Grand Bahama.
Many of the Turks and Caicos' 20,000 people ignored their government's call to leave. More than a dozen houses were damaged there, and a woman was rescued when her roof blew off, but the storm's eye missed the heart of that British territory, where gusts of about 90 miles per hour were reported.
"We have good buildings that are built for hurricanes," said Dorothy Clark, with the Turks and Caicos emergency management service. "Some of the phone lines are still down, but our crews have been able to contact people via satellite phone on all of the islands."
Turks and Caicos Chief Minister Michael Misick said the islands had sustained "only minor damage." He declared them open to tourists.