FREEPORT, Bahamas – Hundreds of people fled their homes, taking refuge in shelters set up in schools and churches as Hurricane Jeanne (search) bore down on the Bahamas with 100-mph winds and torrential rains, threatening more destruction to an island chain still recovering from Hurricane Frances.
About 700 evacuees crowded into a school in the town of Marsh Harbor (search) as Jeanne's outer winds and heavy rains began to lick Abaco island late Friday.
People waited in long lines at gas stations; crowded into stores to stock up on food, water and batteries; and rushed to nail plywood over their windows before Jeanne's expected arrival in the northwest Bahamas on Saturday, on a projected path to Florida.
"We expect two of our islands to get hit hard — Abaco and Grand Bahama," said Jeffrey Simmons, a meteorologist at the Bahamas weather service. The capital of Nassau (search) was projected to be brushed with only tropical storm-force winds, he said.
Officials urged people to evacuate low-lying homes, and shelters opened on the islands of Abaco, Eleuthera and Grand Bahama.
"We fear that it's going to bring more water damage," said Richard Fawkes, a 52-year-old Bahamian reached by phone at the Abaco island shelter. He said he boarded up his beachfront home and was laying out a quilt to sleep atop several desks. "I think people have a lot of battle fatigue from (Hurricane) Frances."
Jeanne has already killed more than 1,100 people in Haiti last weekend and left more than 1,250 others missing.
Forecasters said Jeanne would head toward Florida after hitting the Bahamas.
"Coastal zones need to be evacuated," Assistant Police Commissioner Ellison Greenslade said. "We will be taking all of the necessary precautions."
Businesses closed early Friday as evacuees began to trickle into storm shelters.
Jeanne battered Haiti and the Dominican Republic last week and had appeared headed to the Bahamas. It instead turned east, heading out into the Atlantic Ocean, raising hopes it would spare the Bahamas and Florida.
But the storm then turned a loop and headed back west toward the Bahamas. At 8 p.m. EDT, Jeanne's center was about 170 miles east of Great Abaco island, or about 355 miles off the southeast Florida coast. It sped up slightly and was moving west at about 12 mph.
Hurricane-force winds extended 45 miles from Jeanne's center and tropical storm-force winds 150 miles.
Forecasters warned the storm would stir up dangerous surf and rip currents, and could dump up to 10 inches of rain.
A hurricane warning was posted Friday along Florida's east coast, from Florida City to St. Augustine, while a hurricane watch was announced north to Altamaha Sound, Georgia, and a tropical storm watch south into the Florida Keys.
Carnival Cruise Lines changed the itineraries of three ships to avoid Jeanne. Royal Caribbean International changed the plans of six, while Celebrity Cruises diverted two. Grand Bahama's airport was closing Friday night. Since Frances, electricity has been restored to half the homes on the island of more than 70,000 people. Now residents say they fear it will be knocked out again.
At least 16 shelters were opening in the Bahamas, said Greenslade, who used a tractor to rescue flood victims stranded by Frances three weeks ago.
That storm killed two people and damaged thousands of homes when it tore through the low-lying Bahamas. It toppled rows of power lines, flattened homes and uprooted trees during a prolonged two-day lashing of Grand Bahama Island.
Many homes still have roofs patched up with plastic sheeting.
Electricity has been restored to half the homes on the island of more than 70,000 people, and officials declared the drinking water supply safe only a week ago, said Harold Williams, a Freeport city council member.
On Great Abaco island, residents secured their boats in port as officials urged those in flood-prone areas to evacuate to shelters. The hurricane was expected to bring tidal surges capable of causing severe flooding.
The repeated hurricanes are disrupting tourism, which the government says accounts for more than half the jobs in this country of 300,000 people. Some of Freeport's hotels remain closed due to storm damage.