HURRICANE Joaquin destroyed houses, uprooted trees and unleashed heavy flooding as it hurled torrents of rain across the Bahamas on Friday while the US Coast Guard said it was searching for a cargo ship with 33 people aboard that went missing during the storm.
The Coast Guard said the 735-foot El Faro had taken on water and was last reported listing at 15 degrees near Crooked Island, one of the islands most battered by the hurricane. Officials said the crew includes 31 US citizens and two from Poland.
"This vessel is disabled basically right near the eye of Hurricane Joaquin," said Capt Mark Fedor. "We're going to go and try and save lives. We're going to push it to the operational limits as far as we can."
Officials said they hadn't been able to re-establish communication with the vessel, which was traveling from Jacksonville, Florida, to San Juan, Puerto Rico, and carrying vehicles. The Coast Guard said the crew earlier reported it had been able to contain the flooding.
Fedor said there were 20- to 30-foot waves in the area, and that heavy winds could have destroyed the ship's communications equipment. The ship went missing when Joaquin was a Category 4 storm. The hurricane has since lost strength and become a Category 3 storm.
The slow-moving storm continued to batter parts of the Bahamas, cutting communication to several Family Islands. There had been no reports of fatalities or injuries, said Capt Stephen Russell, the director of the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA).
Officials were investigating reports of shelters being damaged and flooded, as well as two boats with a total of five people that remained missing.
About 85 per cent of homes in one settlement on Crooked Island were destroyed, said Marvin Hanna, an Acklins representative. He said he has had no communication with Acklins since late Thursday morning. "At that time, vehicles were floating around and the water level was up to the windows of some homes," he said.
Residents reached by relatives said they were "trapped in their homes, and reported feeling as if their structures were caving in,” Capt Russell said. "It's too dangerous to go outside because the flood waters are so high, so we ask that persons stay inside and try to go into the most secure place of their home."
Power also was knocked out on several islands, and Leslie Miller, executive chairman of the Bahamas Electricity Corporation, said the company "is in no position to do much" to restore electricity. "All the airports are flooded," he said.
Schools, businesses and government offices were closed as the slow-moving storm roared through the archipelago.
Streets were largely deserted as people remained hunkered down on Eleuthera, which was bracing for heavy winds later on Friday. Some people were still making last-minute preparations, including Alexander Johnson, 61, who was moving his fishing boat with his brother, Solomon.
"It looks like it's going to make a turn to the north, so we won't get it in full," Johnson said. "That's good for us, because we've seen some rough ones come through here."
Security guard Patrick Bethel said he was thankful there had been no reported casualties and wasn't too worried about what the day would bring: "We just have to see what God will do. God controls the storm."
Joaquin had maximum sustained winds of 125mph, the US National Hurricane Centre said. By late afternoon, the storm was centered about 15 miles west-southwest of San Salvador and was moving north near 7mph. Hurricane force winds extended outward up to 50 miles and a hurricane watch was in effect for Bimini and Andros.
A Hurricane Warning remains in effect for the Abacos, Berry Islands, Eleuthera, Grand Bahama, New Providence, Acklins, Crooked Island and Mayaguana.
The Hurricane Centre said parts of the Bahamas could see storm surge raising sea levels 6 to 12 feet above normal, with 12 to 18 inches of rain falling in the central islands. Authorities in the nearby Turks & Caicos Islands closed all airports, schools and government offices.
Authorities in the nearby Turks & Caicos Islands closed all airports, schools and government offices. Bermuda, meanwhile, issued a tropical storm watch.The storm was expected to continue north, with some weakening expected on Saturday as it follows a projected path farther from the US East Coast than originally predicted. Rick Knabb, director of the Centre, said Joaquin is expected to pass well offshore from the eastern seaboard. "We no longer have any models forecasting the hurricane to come into the East Coast," he said. "But we are still going to have some bad weather.
"Joaquin is going to generate a lot of wave energy," Knabb said. Bermuda has issued a tropical storm watch.