Bahamians braced for another day of battering from Joaquin, a slow-moving monster of a hurricane that hit Category 4 intensity Thursday with 130 mph winds forecasters said could grow still stronger overnight.
"They are under the gun," said Capt. Stephen Russell, director of the Bahamas National Emergency Management Agency.
There were no immediate reports of injuries or deaths, but Joaquin is expected to hover over the eastern Bahamas for a second day before an expected turn to the north sometime Friday, a prolonged pounding likely to increase damage. Reports are sketchy, but Russell said on Long Island -- at the edge of Joaquin's powerful eyewall Thursday evening -- homes and streets were flooded from storm surge and on Acklins Island just to the south, flooding was so bad most of the nearly 600 residents couldn't get out of their homes.
For millions of anxious residents along the East Coast of the United States, the chance of escaping a similar direct hit from Joaquin seemed to improve. The National Hurricane Center edged the projected path of Joaquin more offshore as computer models began to align. At 8 p.m., the center said the storm was expected to pick up speed Friday night as it heads north, hundreds of miles from the Florida coast, then slowly weaken to tropical storm power as it approached the New England coast on Tuesday.
"A strong majority of the forecast models are now in agreement on a track farther away from the United States east coast," forecasters said in one advisory "We are becoming optimistic that the Carolinas and the mid-Atlantic states will avoid the direct effects from Joaquin."
They also cautioned that the track could still shift over the next few days and that they could not rule out impacts somewhere along the coast -- particularly from heavy rains that could produce widespread, serious flooding in some coastal states.
In the Bahamas, the powerful storm was expected to generate a potentially deadly storm surge, increased from earlier advisories to 5 to 10 feet, that could unleash life-threatening flash floods, forecasters said. Near shore, the storm could kick up lethal waves. The wet storm is also expected to dump between 10 and 15 inches of rain over the region, with up to 20 inches possible in some areas.
Photos posted on social media Thursday as Joaquin was still approaching showed several feet of water surrounding homes on Long Island, home to a few thousand people on the eastern edge of the central Bahamas.
"It's rough right now," said Maxwell Burrows, 55, reached by phone from his home on Long Island. "The Internet is down. We don't have any power and we are getting bad hurricane winds right now."
Burrows, a tile layer, said even Superstorm Sandy in 2012, which caused damage across the island, wasn't as bad. "What I'm scared of is that the storm is taking so long to go; it's like it's not moving," he said.
Joaquin was indeed crawling, moving at just 6 mph late Thursday, almost stalled as it waited for an approaching front forecasters expected to sweep it north and away from the Bahamas.
Over in Rum Cay, resident Jacqueline Nottage said she didn't start boarding up until Thursday morning when she heard Joaquin was strengthening. By 4:30 p.m. the island still had power and the eye had not yet passed over, Nottage said.
"There isn't much rain, but we can't go outside because of the breeze," she said. "The sea already started coming over the road and into some houses. We just got to give God thanks and hope for the best."
Flights to Long Island, Exuma, Eleuthera as well as Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos were canceled. Schools were also closed in the Bahamian islands as well as in Providenciales, North and Middle Caicos in the Turks and Caicos Islands because of expected heavy rains.
In addition to power outages and spotty cellphone service, islands in the storm's path reported storm surges, strong winds and higher than usual flooding, Russell said. He said, however, that flooding was the result of a high spring tide and supermoon that raised seas throughout the Bahamas in recent days.
Hurricane force winds extended out 50 miles and tropical storm winds about 185 miles. The NHC said a 55-mph gust was reported at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Outer rain bands also could also drench portions of eastern Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, forecasters said.
Though Joaquin's proximity was unsettling for South Florida residents, none of the array of computer models used by forecasters showed the storm affecting the state. The heavily populated Eastern Seaboard from South Carolina to New York will need to continue monitoring the storm's progress through the weekend.
Forecasters had warned a U.S. watch could be issued Thursday, but the track shift could delay any posting, if they are needed.
Even if Joaquin stays offshore, much of the East Coast could get hit with strong winds that could whip up coastal flooding, heavy surf and more rain. The mid-Atlantic could see significant beach erosion along with moderate coastal flooding, forecasters said. The Carolinas, already saturated from previous storms, also could see more rain and damaging flooding.
Joaquin is the first major threat to the East Coast since Superstorm Sandy in 2012, which came ashore just north of Atlantic City and ultimately caused $75 billion in damage, making it the second-costliest storm in U.S. history.