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'Awesome' hurricane rips through Bahamas' 700 islands

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Irene slams Bahamas, Florida
  • NEW: Bahamas banks to reopen Monday
  • No injuries or deaths are immediately reported by agencies in the Bahamas
  • But there has been widespread flooding and damage, including roofs blown off
  • A Nassau resident says the storm was particularly strong Wednesday night

Nassau, Bahamas (CNN) -- The Bahamas worked to return to normal Thursday evening after the worst of Hurricane Irene hammered the Caribbean island chain.

By 4:45 p.m., the U.S. National Hurricane Center noted, the Bahamian government had discontinued the hurricane warning that had been in effect for the central part of the island nation.

But notably, a short time later, Bahamas' National Emergency Management Agency "strongly" urged those on the island of New Providence -- home to the national capital, Nassau -- to stay off the streets until authorities give an "all clear."

The storm wreaked significant havoc on the Bahamas, though there were no immediate reports of deaths or injuries, according to Bahamian government agencies. Previously, officials blamed Irene for two deaths in the Dominican Republic and one in Puerto Rico.

Irene began bearing down on the Bahamas on Wednesday night, bringing 115 mph winds that ripped through trees and power lines and whipped up waters offshore.

"Last night, it felt like there were several jet airplanes landing on the house," said Ric von Maur, an American who has lived in Nassau for the past six years. "But once daylight came, we knew things were going to be OK."

While early reports Thursday indicated few major problems in the main tourist hubs, authorities were still trying to gauge the severity of damage across all the Bahamas' 700 islands, which the nation's tourism website notes are spread over 100,000 square miles of ocean.

Hurricane Irene batters Bahamas

Some of the worst-hit areas were Cat, San Salvador and Long islands, each of which took "direct hits," according to Gayle Outten-Moncur of the National Emergency Management Agency.

"There has been bad flooding in some areas," she said, in part due to storm surges.

Specifically, Outten-Moncur noted that there were reports of between two and three feet of water in homes on Cat Island, which is about 130 miles southeast of Nassau and Paradise Island. On Northern Cat Island, Bahamas Information Services reported that a police station's roof had blown off.

On the island of Mayaguana, meanwhile, several churches reported damage that included some lost roofs, said the National Emergency Management Agency.

A high school's roof blew off on Crooked Island, where part of St. John the Baptist church collapsed. And several homes were blown away on Acklins Island, part of the destruction of a large portion of the Lovely settlement, according to the Emergency Management Agency.

Even as the clean-up began, the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism tried to reassure travelers that the islands should largely be open for business soon -- especially in New Providence and Grand Bahama island, the site of Freeport and the area closest to Miami.

In a statement late Thursday afternoon, the ministry said an "initial assessment ... on major tourism areas in Nassau and Grand Bahama Island indicates limited damage and points to a quick return to normal operations."

Specifically, the ministry said that cruise ports in both locales should open late Thursday, with ships set to resume stopping there by Saturday. Government offices and banks will reopen Monday.

Airports on those two islands should resume operations Friday, it said, and assessments are under way on the other, mostly smaller airports elsewhere in the chain.

The ministry noted that 6,000 guests made it through the storm at the country's largest resort, Atlantis, adding that other resorts "will be open for business as early as tomorrow."

Electricity remained out Thursday afternoon for two-thirds of the customers on New Providence, including von Maur in Nassau, who noted that cell phone service has continued uninterrupted. He said he's breathing easier knowing that his family, neighbors and friends appear to have escaped uninjured. And he said he was impressed by the hurricane's fury.

"Once everybody knows everybody's OK, (a hurricane) is pretty awesome," he said.

CNN's Jim Spellman in Nassau, and Greg Botelho and Phil Gast in Atlanta contributed to this report.