ELEUTHERA, Bahamas (AP) -- Hurricane Joaquin hammered islands in the central Bahamas with torrential rains that flooded homes and forecasters warned that the "extremely dangerous" Category 4 storm could grow even stronger as it roared on a path that could take it near the U.S. East Coast.
Storm Team 5 Meteorologist Glenn Glazer says the latest forecast shows Joaquin growing even stronger as a Category 4 storm over the next 24 to 36 hours.
Joaquin will remain almost stationary Friday but will start to track north tonight or Saturday. The latest track is more east of the U.S.
Surging waters reached the windows of some houses on Long Island in the Bahamas while on Eleuthera island people hauled sandbags and boarded up businesses as the storm neared Friday.
"It's going to be a scary storm," said 42-year-old construction worker Jason Petty as he pointed at towering clouds gathering in the distance in Eleuthera. "It looks nice now, but later on it's going to be terrible, just terrible."
There were no immediate reports of casualties, according to Capt. Stephen Russell, the director of the Bahamas National Emergency Management Agency.
Prime Minister Perry Christie said he was amending laws to mandate evacuations because some people were refusing to move into shelters.
"We do not know the impact of 130 miles an hour on those areas," he said, referring to the hurricane's winds. "We know it's a horrific kind of experience."
The storm is expected to move near or over portions of the central Bahamas overnight.
On Eleuthera, Christian minister Dawn Taylor said she believed Eleuthera would withstand the hurricane because Bahamians learned how to cope with storms after devastating Hurricane Floyd in 1999, which had winds of 155 mph (249 kph) and generated up to 50-foot (15-meter) waves.
Taylor said people on Eleuthera also are deeply religious and that their faith would carry them through.
"We depend on our God, and as long as he is with us, we will be fine and we will ride out the storm," she said.
The storm approached Eleuthera after it generated severe flooding on Acklins, 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."
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 (215 kph), the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said, calling it an "extremely dangerous" hurricane. As of 5 a.m. EDT Friday, the storm was located about 20 miles (35 kilometers) northeast of Clarence Long Island and was moving northwest near 3 mph (6 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 Cuban government issued a tropical storm warning for the provinces of Camaguey, Los Tunas, Holguin, and Guantanamo.
Joaquin 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 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."
East coast braces for more heavy rain
With already-saturated soils and flooded roads, East Coast states were bracing for another day of dreary and possibly dangerous weather Friday as forecasters predicted more downpours and a possible added punch from Joaquin.
Two storm-related deaths have already occurred in the Carolinas, where heavy rain has fallen for days.
Governors declared states of emergency in at least five states as forecasters warned of flash floods from historic Charleston, South Carolina, to Washington, D.C. - regardless of whether Joaquin comes ashore or tracks farther out to sea.
"I know we like to focus on the hurricane," said David Novak, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland. But whatever track Joaquin takes, "we're becoming increasingly confident and concerned about the heavy rainfall."
Streets and homes can still get walloped with rain and flooding associated with the hurricane even if it is 1,000 miles away, forecasters said. And because Joaquin can keep funneling tropical moisture into storm No. 1 from afar, even an out-to-sea Joaquin can worsen flooding.
Rick Knabb, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said Thursday that the threat of a direct hit to the mainland appeared to be decreasing, but cautioned that not all computer models are in agreement.
"We're getting a little more confidence that the chances are really decreasing for a direct impact in the Carolinas and the Mid-Atlantic states," he said.
But the certainty of additional damaging rains and floods in coming days prompted governors to declare states of emergency in Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia.
The fatal unpredictability of the rain was shown when a Thursday morning downpour dumped 4 inches on Spartanburg, South Carolina in a short time, causing flash floods that submerged several cars.
Sylvia Arteaga was driving home after a night shift at Grace Management Group on Thursday morning when authorities said the floodwaters trapped her underneath a railroad bridge at the edge of Spartanburg, drowning the 56-year-old woman.
Hattie Palafox, a middle-school teacher and family friend, described Arteaga as a "very sweet, very kind, very loving" mother of 17- and 20-year-old daughters. Palafox said she had discussed the weather forecast with Arteaga earlier this week, but she hadn't seemed concerned about the expected heavy rains.
"She was very, very soft-spoken. I couldn't say enough about her," Palafox said after placing a bouquet of flowers at Arteaga's home, not far from where she died.
Palafox said she made it a point to keep up with Arteaga and her two daughters after Arteaga's husband died of a heart attack two years ago.
Authorities around the region have warned of saturated soil giving way to falling trees, which appears to have played a role in the death near Fayetteville, North Carolina. North Carolina Highway Patrol Lt. Jeff Gordon said the fatal crash happened on Interstate 95 about 1:30 p.m. when a tree fell across the road, hitting two vehicles.
Gordon says the passenger in one of the vehicles died, and the driver was taken to the hospital. There was no word on the survivor's condition, and the driver of the second vehicle was not hurt.
Gordon said the area has had a lot of rain in the past several days. The National Weather Service reported light rain and winds of about 10 mph around the time of the crash.