US preparing for Hurricane Irene
Hurricane Irene has destroyed hundreds of homes on small Bahamian islands but largely spared the capital Nassau as it tore over the sprawling archipelago on its way toward the east coast of the US.
There were no immediate reports of deaths in the Bahamas from the Category 3 hurricane, but some small settlements reported up to 90% of their homes damaged while assessments from other islands were not in because telephone lines were down.
Irene left a trail of scattered debris, toppled trees and minor flooding but no major damage. Central Nassau was largely unscathed, but the roof of Straw Market, a well-known shopping spot for tourists, was damaged.
The storm headed toward the United States, where it sent thousands of holidaymakers fleeing and threatened up to 65 million people from the Carolinas to New England. It would be the strongest to strike the east coast in seven years.
Hurricane watches were issued from North Carolina to New Jersey. Irene's projected path had it bringing misery to Washington, New York and Boston.
"One of my greatest nightmares was having a major hurricane go up the whole north-east coast," Max Mayfield, a former National Hurricane Centre director, said.
He added: "This is going to have an impact on the United States economy."
Irene was expected to come ashore in North Carolina on Saturday, with 115mph winds and a foot of rain expected.
Officials in Ocean City, Maryland, ordered thousands of residents and tourists to abandon the beach community.
In North Carolina, three coastal counties issued evacuation orders covering more than 200,000 people, including tourists and full-time residents. President Barack Obama declared an emergency for the state, allowing for federal help.