Miami (AFP) - Rescue workers searched for a missing cargo ship with 33 aboard off the Bahamas as Hurricane Joaquin tore through the island chain, halting life in the popular tourist destination.
Contact with the El Faro was lost early Thursday as the dangerous weather system approached, and efforts to locate the vessel by air and sea have so far been unsuccessful, the US Coast Guard said.
"The crew reported the ship had previously taken on water, but that all flooding had been contained," it said in a statement.
En route from Florida to Puerto Rico, the 735-foot (224-meter) cargo ship was reported to be caught in the storm near Crooked Island, which is part of the Bahamas.
It was from there that it sent a satellite notification stating the ship had lost propulsion and had a 15-degree list.
A total of 28 Americans and five Poles were on board, the Coast Guard said.
Tim Nolan, president of the company that owns the El Faro, said the ship's "officers and crew were monitoring what was then Tropical Storm Joaquin" when they sailed from Florida.
"There are a number of possible reasons for the loss of communications among them the increasing severity of Hurricane Joaquin," Nolan said, adding that his company's "primary concern is for the safety and well-being" of those aboard the ship.
- Bahamas drenched -
Joaquin, a Category 3 storm on the five-point Saffir-Simpson scale, was packing maximum sustained winds of 125 miles (205 kilometers) per hour, the US National Hurricane Center said.
The center of the slow-moving storm was located some 25 miles (40 kilometers) northeast of San Salvador, Bahamas, the NHC said in its latest update.
In the Bahamas, authorities on Friday urged caution and closed schools, government offices and banks as Joaquin approached.
Nassau's Lynden Pindling International Airport was closed through early Saturday, local media reported.
"On the forecast track, the core of the strongest winds of Joaquin will move away move away from the Bahamas (late Friday)," the Miami-based forecasters said.
The storm is expected to dump up to 25 inches (63.5 centimeters) of rain in some spots, the NHC said.
Joaquin destroyed homes, caused flooding and left hundreds without power as it tore through the islands.
Most affected are Long Island, Cat Island and Rum Key, where waters rose, trees and power lines were downed and residents lost power and telephone access.
"This is a lot of water... we are in dire need," a Rum Key resident told local radio.
Authorities urged people to take shelter until the worst was over.
"It is very imperative that residents in those islands batten down," said Basil Dean of the Bahamas Department of Meteorology.
The local power company said it would likely be unable to begin repairs until winds subside.
Up to five inches of rain are expected over the southeastern Bahamas, northwestern Bahamas, eastern Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and the Turks and Caicos Islands.
"This rainfall could result in life-threatening flash floods," the NHC said.
- Flooding along US coast -
Along the US East Coast, residents and local officials were cautiously optimistic as forecast models showed Joaquin moving far offshore as it makes its way to the north over the coming days.
On its current path, Joaquin is expected to track off the eastern US coastline from the Carolinas to the mid-Atlantic states.
While the threat of direct impact has decreased, the region is bracing for heavy rain.
Much of the US East Coast has been drenched in the last days by a separate tropical weather system, and rain from Joaquin is expected to result in widespread flooding and overflowing rivers.
Joaquin is the third hurricane of the 2015 Atlantic season, which began in June and ends in November. Peak activity usually occurs in September.
The most destructive weather pattern so far this year was Tropical Storm Erika, which killed around 30 people and caused extensive damage in August on the small Caribbean island of Dominica.