MARSH HARBOUR, Bahamas: Hurricane Dorian churned along the southeastern coast of the United States on Tuesday (Sep 3) as the storm's death toll in the Bahamas rose to seven.
Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis termed Dorian "one of the greatest national crises in our country's history," announcing the updated toll and saying that it would likely rise further.
"We can expect more deaths to be recorded. This is just preliminary information," Minnis told journalists.
Dorian, which over the weekend had been one of the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes on record, inundated homes with floodwater in the Abaco Islands in the northern Bahamas ahead of its expected advance on the US East Coast, where more than a million people had been ordered evacuated.
The hurricane weakened early on Tuesday to a Category 2 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson Wind Scale, with maximum sustained winds of 175km per hour, the US National Hurricane Centre said. It was moving northwest at 1.6kph, below walking speed, and was about 170km east of Fort Pierce, Florida.
The NHC warned that Dorian remained dangerous despite the reduced wind speed.
"The headline for this #Dorian advisory is NOT that the wind speed has slightly decreased," it said on Twitter. "The combined wind, surge, and floods hazards are the same or even worse since the hurricane has become larger."
As many as 13,000 homes in the Bahamas may have been destroyed or severely damaged, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said.
As the storm moved away from the Bahamas, more accounts of the suffering it inflicted began to emerge.
"Water came over the roof. I would imagine 21 feet (6m) at least. We were doing all right until the water kept coming up and all the appliances were going around the house like a washing machine," crab fisherman Howard Armstrong told CNN.
Aerial footage of Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas broadcast by CNN showed scenes of catastrophic damage, with hundreds of homes missing roofs, overturned cars, widespread flooding and debris strewn all over.
"Parts of Abaco are decimated. There's severe flooding, there's severe damage to homes, businesses, other buildings and infrastructure," said Minnis.
Bahamas residents "endured hours and days of horror, fearing for their lives and the lives of their loved ones," he said.
The runways at Grand Bahama International Airport in Freeport, the island's largest city, were under water, complicating rescue and recovery efforts.
"DON'T KNOW WHAT TO DO"
Dorian was expected to churn towards Florida by day's end, before bringing its powerful winds and dangerous surf along the coasts of Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina by late Thursday.
Forecasters have told Floridians not to become complacent because the storm is now predicted to stay off the coast.
Dorian could drive seawater inland as it approaches, with parts of the northern Florida and Georgia coasts seeing as much as 2.1m, said NHC Director Ken Graham, urging residents of coastal areas to obey any evacuation orders.
Hurricane-force winds extended 100km from the storm's core, with still-dangerous tropical storm-force winds felt for 280km from its centre.
Nine counties in Florida have issued mandatory evacuation orders. They included parts of Duval County, which includes Jacksonville, one of Florida's two biggest cities, and some areas in Palm Beach County, home to Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort.
After days of warnings to flee a storm that at its peak was rated at the top of the scale of hurricane strength, many residents of Florida's coast remained unsure whether to wait it out or evacuate.
"I know it's a mandatory evacuation, but everyone I talked to is staying, and I don't know what to do. But I'm going to be ready and packed up in case I need to get on the road if they close those bridges," Linda Cassano, a 53-year-old beautician who lives on Jacksonville Beach said as she stocked up on water and food.
"What deterred me is everything was open, the garbage man came today, the post office was delivering, so those things kind of make you indecisive."
Further north, the streets of Sea Island, Georgia, were largely empty on Tuesday after many visitors heeded evacuation orders, said Kathryn Ross, owner of the Pelican Market grocery store.
"It's like a ghost town. People really packed it up and left. I went running - I was running partly in the road because there was no one there," Ross said in a phone interview. "I think people know the drill and have places set up to stay."
Orlando International Airport ceased commercial operations because of the storm, it said in a statement.
Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando will close early on Tuesday, it said in a statement.
The governors of Georgia and South Carolina had ordered evacuations of some coastal counties.
Dorian was tied with Gilbert (1988), Wilma (2005) and the 1935 Labour Day hurricane for the second-strongest Atlantic hurricane on record, based on maximum sustained winds. Allen in 1980 was the most powerful, with 306kph winds, the NHC said.