Hurricane Joaquin, packing fierce winds and driving rain, is bearing down on the Bahamas as the US East Coast breathes a tentative sigh of relief amid forecasts the storm is set to stay out to sea.
The "extremely dangerous" system, whose wrath was also starting to be felt in eastern Cuba, sparked the closure of schools in the Bahamas, with government offices and banks to follow suit as authorities tried to protect people in the popular tourist destination.
The US Coast Guard, meanwhile, was searching by air and sea for a container ship with 33 crew members aboard that was reported to be caught in the storm near Crooked Island, which is part of the Bahamas.
Efforts to re-establish communications with the El Faro - en route from Florida to Puerto Rico - were unsuccessful on Thursday, the Coast Guard said.
The crew had previously reported that the vessel had taken on water but that "all flooding had been contained," it said.
The slow-moving storm - classified as Category 4 on the five-point Saffir Simpson scale - was situated some 10 kilometres south of Rum Cay the US National Hurricane Center said.
With maximum sustained winds over 200 kilometres per hour, it was expected to bear down across parts of the central, southeastern and northwestern parts of the Bahamas through Friday, the Miami-based forecasters said in their latest update on the situation.
"Extremely dangerous Joaquin now moving northward as it batters the Central Bahamas," they warned.
As the weather worsened across the island chain, authorities announced that the Lynden Pindling International Airport in Nassau would close in the early afternoon through Saturday morning, local media reported.
All schools were closed on Friday with banks and private businesses to shutter in the early afternoon, Tribune 242 reported. Government employees, except those working for essential services, were told to go home at noon.