MIAMI (AP) - Hurricane Joaquin roared through lightly populated islands in the eastern Bahamas as a Category 4 storm on Thursday. Forecasters said it could grow still more powerful before following a path that would near the U.S. East Coast.
Early Friday, the storm remained a dangerous Category 4 hurricane, and had maximum sustained winds near 130 mph (215 kph).
As of 5 a.m., Joaquin was centered about 20 miles (35 kilometers) northeast of Clarence Long Island in the Bahamas and was said to be moving northwest near 3 mph (6 kph).
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said some fluctuations in strength are possible during the day with slow weakening expected to begin Saturday.
Prime Minister Perry Christie said he was amending laws to allow officials to declare a national emergency and mandate evacuations because some people were refusing to move into shelters.
"We do not know the impact of 140 miles an hour on those areas," he said, referring to the hurricane's winds. "We know it's a horrific kind of experience."
Christie and other top-ranking officials also deflected accusations that the government was not prepared and that residents were not properly advised.
The most severe flooding reported so far was on Acklins island, where power went off overnight and phones were down. Russell said some of the roughly 565 people who live there were trapped in their homes.
Bahamas resident Shandira Forbes said she had spoken to her mother on Acklins by phone Thursday.
"She was calling for help because the sea was coming into her house," Forbes said. "People's roofs were lifting up. No one knew (about the storm), so there was no preparedness, there was no meeting, there was nothing."
Flooding also was reported across parts of Long Island, but no one had been injured, said Parliament member Loretta Butler Turner.
"We will have to wait for the winds to die down before we can go out and really assess the damage," she said.
Islands such as San Salvador, Cat Island and Rum Cay were expected to be hit hardest before the storm begins an expected shift toward the north, forecasters said.
Joaquin had maximum sustained winds of 130 mph (210 kph) and hurricane strength winds extending 45 miles (75 kilometers) from the eye, the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said. As of 5 p.m. EDT, the storm was located about 15 miles (25 kilometers) northwest of Crooked Island after passing over Samana Cays, Bahamas. It was moving southwest at 6 mph (9 kph).
While Samana Cays is usually uninhabited, eight to 10 people were working there, staying in temporary housing, when the storm hit, said Parliament member Alfred Gray.
"If the buildings look like they won't withstand, there are some caves on the side of the rock that they can go into because it's not prone to flooding," he said.
Meanwhile, authorities in the nearby Turks & Caicos Islands closed all airports, schools and government offices.
The storm was predicted to turn to the north and northwest toward the United States on Friday, but forecasters were trying to determine how it might affect the U.S. East Coast, which was already suffering flooding and heavy rains from separate storms.
"There's still a distinct possibility that his could make landfall somewhere in the U.S.," said Dennis Feltgen, a meteorologist and hurricane center spokesman.
The Hurricane Center said parts of the Bahamas could see storm surge raising sea levels 5 to 10 feet (as much as 3 meters) above normal, with 10 to 15 inches (250 to 380 millimeters) of rain falling on the central Bahamas.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center's long-term forecast showed the storm could near the U.S. East Coast along North Carolina and Virginia on Sunday or Monday.
"Residents of the Carolinas north should be paying attention and monitoring the storm. There's no question," said Eric Blake, a hurricane specialist with the center. "If your hurricane plans got a little dusty because of the light hurricane season, now is a good time to update them."