PROVIDENCIALES, Turks and Caicos – Hurricane Frances forced hundreds of people to flee across the Caribbean after ripping through the British territory of Turks and Caicos (search), and the Bahamas' prime minister warned that the mighty storm headed his way could be the worst in the archipelago nation's history.
The Category 4 storm's lashing winds of more than 145 mph tore tin roofs off houses and plucked trees from the ground as it plowed through the Turks and Caicos on Wednesday.
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. Flights in and out of the Turks and Caicos were canceled, and many were expected to be canceled Thursday in the nearby Bahamas (search), where one store in Nassau said people looted bottles of drinking water. The chain of more than 700 islands has a population of about 300,000 people.
Frances was expected to reach the southeastern Bahamas by Thursday morning.
"I've seen hurricanes and tornadoes, and all types of storms," said Andrea Buckingham, a paralegal from Alexandria, Va., who was staying at the Wyndham Nassau Resort & Crystal Palace Casino in the Bahamas. "We feel safe. We'll just have to wait and see."
Bahamas Prime Minister Perry Christie urged Bahamians to remain calm, but cautioned islanders they could see "the most intense hurricane in recorded history."
The U.S. Embassy in Nassau evacuated about 200 non-emergency personnel and their family members, said Stacie Zerdecki, an embassy spokeswoman. Hundreds of others also fled.
For some, panic began to set in Wednesday 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, which called the police to control the crowd.
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.
About 375 guests and 110 employees left on charter planes Wednesday and were taken to Club Med resorts in the Dominican Republic, Miami and Montreal, she said.
Hurricane Floyd, which was also a Category 4, hit the resort in 1999.
In the Turks and Caicos Islands, Club Med's Turkoise resort moved all its guests to safer second-floor rooms as the hurricane passed, Martelly said.
Hundreds of others were evacuated from low-lying cayes in the Turks and Caicos.
"I've never been in a hurricane before," said Julie Dilling, 45, who was staying at a shelter in Providenciales, the main commercial center in the Turks and Caicos, with the rest of her dive group from Fort Worth, Texas. "I suppose it just adds to the story."
Water and other supplies such as batteries and food disappeared as stores struggled to keep up with the growing demand.
"It's been difficult keeping shelves stocked," said Bruce Souder, managing director of City Markets in the Bahamas. "Customers are grabbing bread, water and batteries."
In the Dominican Republic, more than 50 families were evacuated along the country's northern coast. There were reports of minor flooding.
At 5 a.m. Thursday, the hurricane was about 35 miles north of the southeastern Bahamas and was moving west-northwest at about 13 mph.
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.
Nearly a half-million people were ordered to evacuate Florida as Frances swirled toward the state, just weeks after Charley's devastating visit.
Forecasters said the still-strengthening Category 4 storm could hit on Labor Day weekend as early as Friday night, less than three weeks after Charley raked Florida's western coast with 145 mph wind, killing 27 people and causing billions of dollars in damage.
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency, activating the National Guard.