FREEPORT, Bahamas – Hurricane Frances (search) raged through the sparsely populated southeastern Bahamas (search) Thursday, unleashing ferocious winds and kicking up 15-foot waves as it headed for the island chain's main towns and on a path for Florida.
Winds of more than 120 eye crossed Thursday. Electricity and phone services were down on Long Island, which has about 3,000 residents.
Bahamas Prime Minister Perry Christie urged Bahamians to remain calm, but warned they could see "the most intense hurricane in recorded history."
Most buildings in the Bahamas are built of concrete, stone or other heavy materials to withstand winds of up to 125 mph. But the Category 4 storm's lashing 140 mph winds had Bahamians crowded outside hardware stores, loading plywood and other materials onto pickup trucks.
Residents nailed boards over their windows, buying food and jugs of water as they prepared to shut themselves inside their homes and ride out the storm.
"I've never seen a hurricane of this magnitude," Simeon Robinson, 52, said as his son boarded up their apartment in Freeport (search). "Even the building code, which is one of the strictest in the region, is not designed to protect against winds of this magnitude."
In a potentially ominous sign, Frances' approach toward the Bahamas and the U.S. mainland slowed from around 13 mph Thursday afternoon to 9 mph Thursday night.
"The hurricane has slowed down, so everyone is worried. That usually means the hurricane is strengthening," said Gerald Sawyer, president of the Bahamas Red Cross.
By Thursday night, the storm's eye was about 65 miles southeast of northern Cat Island, gusty winds had reached Nassau, and intermittent rains soaked Freeport.
Forecasters said the storm's center 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 U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami.
Storm shelters were opened in schools and churches. At the Central Church of God in Freeport, a dozen tourists piled their belongings next to air mattresses.
"We're scared, really," said Maxine Skinner, 45, a construction firm employee visiting from Reading, England. "We don't know how far the water's going to rise."
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.
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.
The storm tore tin roofs off houses and plucked trees from the ground in the Turks and Caicos Islands on Wednesday, forcing hundreds to leave their homes for shelters or higher ground.
Teams in both the Turks and Caicos and the southeastern Bahamas assessed damage. No deaths or injuries had been reported.
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 one 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 mph were felt.
"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.
The U.S. Embassy in Nassau evacuated about 200 non-emergency personnel and their families, said Stacie Zerdecki, an embassy spokeswoman.
Helen Russell, a 48-year-old teacher in Freeport, decided to ride out the storm in her wood-roofed home, which has a pine tree towering over it.
"My biggest fear is basically being inside then the roof coming off," she said. "Hopefully it'll be there after the hurricane passes."
A hurricane warning was up for most of Florida's east coast, stretching more than 300 miles. About 2.5 million people were ordered to clear out, the biggest evacuation request in the state's history.
Forecasters said the still-strengthening Category 4 storm could hit Florida as early as Friday night, less than three weeks after Hurricane Charley raked Florida's western coast with 145 mph winds, causing billions of dollars in damage and killing 27 people.
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency, activating the National Guard.
At 8 p.m. Thursday, the hurricane's eye was 355 miles east-southeast of Florida. It was moving west-northwest at 9 mph.