By Frances Robles, Daniel Chang and Curtis Morgan
NASSAU, Bahamas - On Cat Island, where a 140-mph gust was recorded, police cars were awash in 4 feet of sea water and every power line was down. In the Exumas, Sandals Resort announced it would refuse new guests until battered rooms and docks can be fixed. On Acklins Island, the Lovely Bay settlement no longer fit its name, an estimated 90 percent of homes simply "gone."
Hurricane Irene, finally pulling away from the Bahamas late Thursday, gave the archipelago a top-to-bottom beating. Just how bad it was may take days to assess as authorities in the relatively unscathed capital city struggled to gather reports from out islands silenced by Irene's fallen telephone poles and a blanket of satellite-blocking clouds and storms.
Damage in the sparsely populated islands may pale in comparison to the potentially catastrophic impacts Category 3 Irene could have over the next few days. Much of the East Coast, and tens of millions of people, were officially in the danger zone for a massive, menacing tropical cyclone.
At 5 p.m. EDT, the National Hurricane Center placed a swath from South Carolina to New Jersey under watches and warnings likely to expand well into New England. North Carolina could be slammed Saturday. Smack in the center of the forecast cone the next day: New York City.
There were tentative plans to order evacuations, including in Battery Park City in Manhattan, and concerns about flooded subways. "The city has already seen the power of Mother Nature once this week," said Mayor Michael Bloomberg. "And Mother Nature may not be done with us yet."
But earthquake tremors early in the week did little more than rattle nerves. Emergency managers and forecasters feared Irene could wreak havoc, evoking historic 1938 and 1944 unnamed storms that devastated New Jersey and New England. Forecasters expect the 115-mph storm could strengthen more before landfall in North Carolina and remain a Category 1 hurricane as far north as New York.
The governors of North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia, New Jersey and New York all declared states of emergency.
Hurricane center Director Bill Read said much of the mid-Atlantic Coast could see hurricane force winds, up to 10 inches of rain and - most dangerous - storm surge that could drive ocean waters inland, from 5 to 10 feet above ground level in some areas. There were fears of major flooding in Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey and particularly in Long Island Sound.
"This will not be a coastal storm," warned Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "We will see impacts well inland."
Hurricane expert Jeff Masters, co-founder of the Weather Underground website, posted a dire analysis: "Irene is capable of inundating portions of the coast under 10-15 feet of water, to the highest storm surge depths ever recorded."
Irene was already snarling air travel. More than 170 flights into and out of South Florida airports were canceled by Thursday afternoon. The impacts will be wider by the weekend.
A string of shredded roofs, flooded communities and uprooted trees across the Bahamas displayed Irene's power.
Despite the widespread damage, no deaths or serious injuries had been reported. But Trevor Basden, senior meteorologist at the Bahamas Weather Service, remained worried about Abaco, the northernmost Bahamian island - particularly a humble Haitian community near Marsh Harbor called "The Mud."
"It's densely populated, and the 115 mph winds over that area could be quite devastating," he said.
There was little information from Abaco, one of the more populated islands, which was still under Irene's assault late Thursday. News stations said they hadn't heard from reporters dispatched to northern islands. Reports were sketchy throughout the 500-mile-long chain of some 700 islands. Emergency management officials said southern island administrators had called early reports in once - and then communications ended. One Crooked Island homeowner said nobody has spoken to any of the island's 400 residents since Wednesday morning.
"Assessments are very slow going," emergency operations manager Gayle Outten-Moncur told local TV reporters. "People might be getting reports from people calling in to radio stations, but those are just personal accounts."
Outten-Moncur said several homes in Eleuthera had serious damage. On Cat Island, storm surge on Arthur's Town Road had inundated police cars. The police station's roof blew off. There were conflicting reports out of Mayaguana in the southeastern Bahamas, with island administrator Harvey Roberts disputing a government tally of 40 homes seriously damaged. "We're not that bad," he told McClatchy Newspapers. "We got a good licking, but that's about it. There are some shingles missing, and churches slightly damaged. We lost a lot of vegetation and three poles were damaged. We're now cleaning up."
There was significant concern about Acklins and Crooked islands, hammered by Irene's eye wall. Roberts said he had been unable to reach anyone there.
National Emergency Management Agency director Capt. Stephen Russell said the administrator of Acklins Island told him that "90 percent" of homes in the small Lovely Bay settlement were gone but the estimate needed to be verified.
On New Providence Island, where most of the Bahamas' 300,000-plus people live, the electric company reported that two-thirds of the island was without power. Massive trees along Cable Beach toppled. The city's famed straw market lost its roof covering. A new one was under construction anyway.
But many residents felt fortunate. Kirkwood Evans, owner of Goldie's Conch House at the beachside Fish Fry Village, found his back room and pool tables soaked and the sign torn from his restaurant. "As long as the building is still standing, that's good," Evans told The Palm Beach Post. "All this stuff, I can buy again."
(Staff writer Hannah Sampson contributed to this story.)
(c)2011 The Miami Herald