LUQUILLO, Puerto Rico – Hurricane Frances (search) roared toward the Bahamas and the southeastern United States on Wednesday after churning past Puerto Rico, bringing heavy surf and blustery winds to the U.S. territory.
Frances strengthened to a dangerous Category 4 hurricane with sustained wind of 140 mph. Forecasters said it could get even stronger — to a Category 5 storm with 156 mph wind. Still, Puerto Rico saw only moderate rain and winds, and lighting that knocked out electricity to about 17,000 people. No injuries were reported.
The storm was forecast to be passing near or over the Turks and Caicos Islands and the southeastern Bahamas on Wednesday afternoon. Some residents in Turks and Caicos put up plywood on their windows. Others in the British territory hurried to buy emergency supplies, stocking up on bottled water and canned food.
By Wednesday morning, the government had not issued any evacuation orders.
The Bahamian government was urging people in the southeastern cays to move to larger islands, said Carl Smith, the national disaster coordinator. One of the most vulnerable islands was Great Inagua, with a population of about 600.
"We're reminding people to get water, food supplies and batteries, and to know what shelter is close to their residence," Smith said.
The Bahamian trade minister, Leslie Miller, threatened to revoke the licenses of any businesses that engage in price gouging. He said his agency has been inundated with calls from people complaining businesses were hiking prices for plywood, light bulbs, batteries and water.
"We will shut you down," Miller warned at a news conference. "It is against the law to jack up prices in times of a national crises. ... We will not hesitate in fining them the $5,000 and a year in jail if they chose to take advantage of our people in their time of need."
Hurricane warnings were in effect for the southeastern Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands, while a hurricane watch was in place for the central Bahamas.
A tropical storm warning was posted for the north coast of the Dominican Republic. The U.S. National Hurricane Center (search) in Miami warned that large and dangerous waves were possible along the north coast of Hispaniola, which the Dominican Republic shares with Haiti.
At 8 a.m. EDT, Frances was centered about 130 miles east of Grand Turk Island southeast of the Bahamas and 1,260 miles east-southeast of Palm Beach. It was moving west-northwest at 16 mph.
Hurricane-force wind extended outward 70 miles from the center, while tropical storm-force winds extended 185 miles.
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.
Carnival Cruise Lines said it had diverted four cruise ships. Royal Caribbean International said it rerouted at least three, while Norwegian Cruise Line said one ship changed its itinerary.
As Frances passed to the north of Puerto Rico on Tuesday, many offices and schools were closed on the Caribbean island. Surfers rode the hurricane's crashing swells, while some residents sandbagged their doors and stayed inside while the storm passed. There were no reports of major flooding.