A large and powerful Hurricane Irene was roaring its way Wednesday across the entire Bahamas archipelago, knocking down trees and tearing up roofs and posing the most severe threat to some of the smaller and less-populated islands, officials said.

Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham said there have been no major injuries or deaths according to preliminary reports he has been receiving from throughout the widely scattered islands. But he added that they would not know the full extent of damage from the Category 3 storm until it is clear of the country on Friday.

Mr. Ingraham said the latest storm data seemed to indicate that lightly populated Cat Island, as well as the even smaller Rum Cay, was in particular danger because the storm was expected to pass over the entire length of both islands. Bahamian forecasters said New Providence, the largest and most populated island, would see tropical storm-force winds starting late Wednesday.

This was only the third time since 1866 that a hurricane has gone across the entire length of the island chain, Mr. Ingraham said, and the country was bracing for extensive damage to buildings and infrastructure. But the Prime Minister predicted few casualties overall.

“As a general statement we do a fair job of managing hurricanes so personal injuries, we hope, will not be substantial,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press at an emergency operations centre in Nassau. “Property damage, vegetation, public infrastructure, yes, but as a general statement we would hope that personal injuries would be minimized.”

The latest forecast was relatively good news for Nassau, which is on New Providence, and is home to more than 200,000 in addition to being a major tourist destination. Capt. Stephen Russell, director of the National Emergency Management Agency, told AP that the capital should not expect the direct hit from the hurricane that many feared. Instead, forecasters said the island should see tropical storm force winds of 60 mph, with stronger gusts.

“That should go very well for us unless the system alters its course during the next 24 hours,” Mr. Russell said.

Still, the storm could cause problems. Trevor M. Basden, senior deputy director of the country’s Department of Meteorology, said New Providence could expect to be buffeted with fierce winds until Thursday evening. “That is quite of bit of time to be experiencing tropical storm force winds,” he said.

Authorities set up emergency shelters throughout the country but most locals were expected to stay in their own homes or with friends and family while visitors stayed in the handful of hotels that remained open for what was expected to be a rough next few days.

As darkness fell in the capital, and the first strong winds and rain began to lash the city, the streets were largely deserted. Earlier, the capital buzzed with last-minute preparations as people gathered what last-minute supplies were still available and shop owners boarded up their windows. Nassau, which surrounded by sparkling greenish-blue ocean, 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.

By Wednesday night, Irene was centred about 245 kilometres east-southeast of Nassau with winds of 120 mph (195 kph). Hurricane force winds extended about 95 kilometres from its centre.

Irene is expected to become a Category 4 hurricane by Thursday as it passes over the north-western Bahamas en route to the eastern U.S. coast, said the U.S. National Hurricane Centre in Miami, Florida.

Irene barrelled 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.

No deaths or injuries have been reported, she said.

Puerto Rico, which also was hit by Irene, is still struggling with heavy flooding that has stranded motorists and affected several neighbourhoods. 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.

In the Dominican Republic, flooding, rising rivers and mudslides have prompted the government to evacuate nearly 38,000 people. Authorities said a 40-year-old man was killed when floodwaters destroyed his home in Cambita, about 42 kilometers west of Santo Domingo, and a 42-year-old Haitian migrant drowned in a surging river near the city of El Seibo.

Juan Manuel Mendez, director of the Central Emergency Operations Center, said more slides were likely in coming days because of days of intense rain from the storm system.

Impoverished Haiti was left “relatively unscathed,” with only isolated damage from flooding, the United Nations said.

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