Tropical Storm Bonnie swirls through Bahamas, on track to hit oil spill in Gulf of Mexico

Published July 22, 2010

| Associated Press

NASSAU, Bahamas (AP) — Tropical Storm Bonnie steamed through the central Bahamas on Thursday night while tracking a course that could take it over the site of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Rain and lightning raked the low-lying Turks and Caicos Islands and the Bahamas, and forecasters at the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said the storm could reach the Gulf of Mexico by Saturday.

On Thursday night, Bonnie had maximum sustained winds of 40 mph (65 kph), and was centered about 165 miles (265 kilometers) southeast of the Bahamian capital of Nassau and was approaching the northwestern Bahamas.

On Friday, the center of Bonnie was expected to pass near or over the Florida Keys and part of the southern Florida peninsula. U.S. forecasters said slow strengthening of the storm was possible during the next 48 hours.

Capt. Stephen Russell, director of the Bahamian National Emergency Management Agency, said there were no reports of major damage, flooding or injuries on islands in the southeastern and central Bahamas already passed by the storm. The storm wasn't yet clear of the most heavily populated islands in the northeast, including New Providence and Grand Bahama.

"We are advising everyone to remain vigilant throughout the night and early morning when the storm exits the Bahamas," Russell said.

A broken oil well has spewed somewhere between 94 million and 184 million gallons into the Gulf before a cap could be attached. The crisis — the biggest offshore oil spill in U.S. history — unfolded after the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20, killing 11 workers.

Some experts worry the hurricane season could worsen environmental damage from the spill, with powerful winds and large waves pushing oil deeper into estuaries and wetlands and also depositing more of the pungent, sticky mess on beaches.

As the storm advanced Thursday, people stocked up on water and food in the southern Bahamas and Turks and Caicos, island chains that are well-accustomed to rough weather. Many businesses remained open, but schools were already closed for the summer.

Shannelle Lightbourne, 27, shopped at a market in the island of Providenciales in Turks and Caicos after hearing warnings that it would rain heavily.

"I am stocking up what I can," she said. "I may not be able to leave my house."

Donna Musgrove, a businesswoman in Providenciales, said some streets were flooded. "It's raining from one end of the island to the other," she said. "The skies are completely dark."

The storm did not pose a threat to tourist resorts in the islands.

Tourist Ezra Uzzel, 45, of North Carolina, said he would not cut short his two-week vacation in the Turks and Caicos.

"This if our third day, and if the reports are right, by the weekend we should have good weather again," he said.

Residents in the southeastern Bahamas endured heavy rains and copious lightning, but no damages or injuries had been reported. Officials with the Emergency Operations Center said they would travel to the area with basic supplies as soon as the weather improved.

Julius Bonaby, 47, of Bahamas' Crooked Island, said he went to the grocery store early Thursday and spent most of the day listening to radio weather reports with his wife and two children.

"There's a lot of wind," he said. "We're hoping it'll pass over."

A tropical storm warning was issued for the central and northwestern Bahamas, for Florida's east coast south of Golden Beach and also along Florida's west coast northward to Bonita Beach.

The system was expected bring heavy winds and rains to the Florida Keys in the next few days, but emergency officials said they were not planning any mandatory evacuations since they did not expect a major storm surge.

As a precaution, storm shelters will open for tourists and residents who live on boats or have special needs.

In the Dominican Republic, where roughly 1,500 people were evacuated, rice fields were destroyed and 14 communities left isolated after bridges collapsed. A 14-year-old boy died in Puerto Rico on Sunday after drowning in a swollen river.

Haiti's Department of Civil Protection reported minor flooding in the northern Artibonite region but no injuries or major damage.

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Associated Press Writer Vivian Tyson in Providenciales, Turks and Caicos, contributed to this report.

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