Hurricane batters Bahamas

but largely spared the capital Nassau as it tore over the sprawling archipelago on its way toward the US east coast.

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There were no reports of deaths in the Bahamas from the category three hurricane, but some small settlements reported up to 90 percent of their homes damaged.

Irene is forecast to continue moving over the northwestern Bahamas before heading north toward the United States, where it has sent thousands of holiday-makers fleeing and threatens up to 65 million people from the Carolinas to New England.

It would be the strongest to strike the east coast in seven years.

NEW YORKERS BRACE THEMSELVES

New Yorkers prepared Thursday for potential evacuation from Hurricane Irene, which was on track to become the first hurricane in the Big Apple for a generation.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg told residents in low-lying neighborhoods to prepare immediately to escape what could be massive flooding when the storm whips through on Sunday.

“If you have a car and live in a low lying area, park it on a hill,” he told a televised press conference. “Move stuff upstairs.”

City services, including the transportation department, were already moving equipment out of potential flood areas and police were deploying boats around the city, Bloomberg said.

In the worst case, some “relatively small” areas in the city of more than eight million people will be asked — or required — to evacuate.

The city can “suggest people move. Another thing is the mayor apparently has the power to issue an executive order and force people to move,” Bloomberg said.

New York hasn’t faced a hurricane for a quarter of a century and its complex maze of underground trains, airports, busy road traffic and densely packed waterside communities could make it especially vulnerable.

Forecasters say the fate of New York, as well as other big cities in the hurricane’s sights, like Philadelphia, depends on the exact path that Irene takes.

If the system tracks a little more out to sea, that may save the cities a pasting, but if Irene’s eye homes in on the coastline, famous places like the New Jersey gambling resort of Atlantic City and the Big Apple itself could be in trouble.

Bloomberg reassured residents that for now there was no fear of damage to Manhattan’s skyscrapers, which already took a shaking this week from a rare earthquake.

The biggest potential danger will come from flooding and falling trees when the rain pours into ground already soaked by weeks of wet weather.

“Big buildings are designed to withstand enormous winds,” Bloomberg said. “There’s no reason for you to leave a big building.”

Rather, the mayor said, there is likely to be damage in “very old, rather low rise wooden buildings, brick buildings.”

“You’re going to see small bricks come down,” he said.

He said that shelters were being organized for people forced to leave their homes, but that the best solution was to find friends or relatives.

“If you live in one of these areas, spend a bit of time today on precautions and see if that long lost cousin is willing to put you up overnight,” he quipped.

Among the other unknowns for now is whether the weather will affect outdoor events in New York, including the US Open at Flushing Meadows, Bloomberg said.

Dennis Feltgen, a spokesman for the National Hurricane Center, said New York had not suffered a direct hit from a hurricane since Gloria in September 1985, which hit Long Island as a category one storm causing widespread damage.

“This is different, because it is slow-moving, meaning the impacts could be over a longer period and over a wider area,” Feltgen said.

“Cities that could be directly impacted include Washington DC, Baltimore, New York City and Boston. They face a very big threat.”