NASSAU, Bahamas (AP) — Some tourists caught the last planes out of the Bahamas on Wednesday while others remained behind with residents, preparing for what was expected to be a rough night as large and powerful Hurricane Irene threatened to deliver punishing winds and floods to the low-lying chain of islands.
The Bahamian capital buzzed with last-minute preparations, with the government and some major resorts setting up emergency shelters and store owners boarding up their windows. Nassau's downtown is known to flood even in heavy rain so the storm surge was expected to make many roads impassable, especially in the colonial downtown.
Many visitors weren't waiting around to find out what would happen and fled the country, waiting in long lines to catch planes before the airport closed. Some tourists had no choice but to leave since smaller hotels abruptly closed and larger ones were booked up with Bahamian residents looking for a place to ride out the storm. Others flying out simply didn't want to take their chances with what could be a major storm.
"I've been through one hurricane and I don't want to see another," said Susan Hooper of Paris, Illinois, who was cutting short a trip with her husband, Marvin, to celebrate their 23rd wedding anniversary. "My main concern is what if something happened to the airport. How would I get home?"
Maureen Fallon, a 39-year-old consultant from Annapolis, Maryland, was forced to abandon a trip with six friends through the Bahamas archipelago on a 47-foot (14-meter) catamaran. They tried rerouting the boat as the storm developed but gave up less than halfway through after the U.S. State Department issued a warning to travelers.
"I'm pretty bummed," she said. "But there was just no way. It was way too dangerous."
Meghan Stark, traveling with her mother and 5-year-old son, arrived at the airport exhausted and frustrated after their hotel closed and told all guests to leave, less than 24 hours after first telling them the storm was not likely to pose a major threat to Nassau.
Stark, a college student from Baldwin, New York, arrived in the Bahamas on Monday for a weeklong stay that had already been delayed after a storm in New York postponed their flight for two days. Staff at their hotel, Sandyport Beaches Resort, initially reassured them that the storm wasn't a major danger.
"We had asked them when we got here about the storm and they said, 'Don't worry about it, these things blow over,'" she said.
Less than 24 hours later, Stark and her family found their room keys not working and the staff telling them to clear out. They spent the night racking up an expensive cell phone bill trying to book a flight out. At one point, they considered and rejected the option of staying in a refuge being set up in one of the larger hotels. On Wednesday morning, they were forced to leave early.
"Our hotel said they were getting us a taxi and they dumped us here," Stark said at the airport. The family had spent $5,000 on essentially a day trip.
Stark said she planned fighting for some kind of refund. "I'm going to go home and throw a little bit of a fit," she said.
Irene, a Category 3 hurricane with 120 mph (195 kph) winds, was centered about 250 miles (405 kilometers) southeast of Nassau. It is expected to become a Category 4 hurricane by Thursday as it passes over the northwestern Bahamas en route to the eastern U.S. coast, said the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida.
Irene barreled through the Turks and Caicos Islands late Tuesday as a Category 1 hurricane, blowing off some roofs and downing power lines, said Emily Malcolm, district commissioner for South Caicos island.
"It's not as bad as I thought it would have been, so I am thankful for that," she said Wednesday by telephone.
No deaths or injuries have been reported, she said, adding that the main concern now is that heavy rains could lead to flooding.
Puerto Rico, which also was hit by Irene, is still struggling with heavy flooding that has stranded motorists and affected several neighborhoods. Dozens of landslides have been reported and 765 people remain in shelters, Gov. Luis Fortuno told a news conference Wednesday, two days after he declared a state of emergency.
On Tuesday, a 62-year-old woman died at a hospital after trying to cross a swollen river in her car near the capital of San Juan, police said.
Tens of thousands of people still remain without power in the U.S. Caribbean territory.
In the Dominican Republic, flooding has stranded at least 85 communities and nearly 32,000 people have been evacuated. Emergency crews equipped with lifejackets and ropes on Wednesday rescued families whose homes were being flooded by a swollen river in the city of San Cristobal, just west of the capital.
Far to the south in Cuba, the storm sent waves crashing over the seawall in the extreme eastern city of Baracoa, causing ankle-deep flooding and damaging some sidewalks.
"The night was a bit bad," said resident Marisleytis Bidot. "We still have to see if the water doesn't get in the house, because then we'd have to go."
But Baracaoa residents were grateful that after earlier forecasts of a direct hit from the storm, they were spared the kind of damage seen in 2008 when Hurricane Ike destroyed hundreds of homes.
"I thank God and nature that it wasn't like the other one," said Lucia Cuba.
Governments across the Caribbean are monitoring another cluster of thunderstorms that have a 50 percent chance of becoming a tropical cyclone and are expected to arrive this weekend.
Associated Press writer Danica Coto in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Ezequiel Abiu Lopez in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and APTN senior producer Fernando Gonzalez in Baracoa, Cuba, contributed to this report.