FREEPORT, Bahamas (ASSOCIATED PRESS) - Practically parking itself over the Bahamas for a day and a half, Hurricane Dorian pounded away at the islands on Tuesday (Sept 3) in a catastrophic onslaught that sent flood waters up to the second floors of buildings, trapped people in attics and chased others from one shelter to another. At least five deaths were reported.
"We are in the midst of a historic tragedy," Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said. "The devastation is unprecedented and extensive."
The storm's relentless winds and rain battered homes and businesses on the islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama, which have a combined population of about 70,000 and are no more than 12m above sea level at their highest points. The Grand Bahama airport was under 2m of water.
Desperate callers trying to find loved ones left messages with local radio stations as the country's health minister said medical teams would be sent to the Abaco islands.
Dorian's winds dipped to 193kmh on Tuesday morning, making it a still highly dangerous Category 3 hurricane, and the storm was barely moving at 2kmh, with a part of its eyewall still hanging over the Grand Bahama Island since Sunday night.
Dorian was expected to approach the Florida coast later Tuesday, but the threat to the state had eased significantly, with the National Hurricane Centre's projected track showing most of the coast just outside the cone of potential landfall.
As Labour Day weekend drew to a close, hundreds of thousands of people in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina - more than 800,000 in South Carolina alone, and a half-million in Georgia - were warned to evacuate for fear Dorian could bring life-threatening storm-surge flooding even if the hurricane's centre stayed offshore, as forecast. Several large airports announced closures, and hundreds of flights were cancelled.
The US Coast Guard airlifted at least 21 people injured on Abaco Island, which Dorian hit on Sunday with sustained winds of 295kmh and gusts up to 355kmh, a strength matched only by the Labour Day hurricane of 1935, before storms were given names.
Scientists say climate change generally has been fuelling more powerful and wetter storms, and the only recorded hurricane more powerful than Dorian was Allen in 1980, with 305kmh winds, though it did not hit land at that strength.
Bahamian officials said they received a "tremendous" number of calls from people in flooded homes. One radio station said it got more than 2,000 distress messages, including reports of a 5-month-old baby stranded on a roof and a woman with six grandchildren who cut a hole in a roof to escape rising floodwaters. At least two designated storm shelters were flooded.
Dorian was blamed for one death in Puerto Rico at the start of its path through the Caribbean.
Mr Minnis said many homes and buildings were severely damaged or destroyed. Choppy brown floodwaters reached roofs and the tops of palm trees.
Member of Parliament Iram Lewis said he feared waters would keep rising and stranded people would lose contact with officials as their cellphone batteries died.
"It is scary," he said, adding that people were moving from one shelter to another as floodwaters kept surging. "We're definitely in dire straits."
Forecasters said that the storm had come to a near standstill because the steering currents in the atmosphere had collapsed. But meteorologist Daniel Brown cautioned that even "a small deviation" in its projected track could take the storm toward land.