Washington/Vero Beach - A larger but weakened Hurricane Dorian began lashing the east coast of central Florida late on Tuesday as it picked up speed after stalling over the Bahamas for two days causing at least seven deaths and catastrophic damage.
Dorian became a Category 2 hurricane as its strongest winds dropped to 175 kilometres per hour, the Miami-based National Hurricane Center (NHC), but the storm also grew in size, with hurricane-force winds extending about 95 kilometres from its centre.
It also picked up speed, to about 9 kilometers per hour, after sitting nearly stationary over the Bahamas since making landfall there on Sunday as a category 5 hurricane, the NHC said in its 8 pm (0000 GMT Wednesday) update.
The storm's shift in direction earlier on Tuesday means Florida most likely will be spared a direct hit, the NHC forecast said.
"On this track, the core of Hurricane Dorian will move dangerously close to the Florida east coast and the Georgia coast tonight through Wednesday night, the advisory said, adding that Dorian was forecast to "move near or over" the coast of South and North Carolina Thursday through Friday morning.
Tropical storm conditions were expected to continue "for a few more hours" on Grand Bahama Island, though subsiding water levels there and on the Abaco Islands were expected to be accompanied by large and destructive waves near the coast.
The northern islands of the Bahamas have suffered the brunt of the massive storm so far. At least seven people have died and more than 13,000 houses have been severely damaged or destroyed by the hurricane, officials said.
In a press conference late on Tuesday, Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said that the death toll rose from five to seven after two of 25 people transported to New Providence Island died.
"We can expect more deaths," Minnis said, adding that the current numbers were based on preliminary information after a initial assessment of Abaco Island, which also found "severe damage of homes, businesses, other buildings and infrastructure."
The prime minister added that an initial assessment of Grand Bahama Island will be carried out as soon as the Met office gives the "all clear."
Some 60,200 people on Grand Bahama and Abaco may require food aid according to preliminary estimates, UN World Food Programme spokesman Herve Verhoosel said.
The hurricane unleashed massive flooding and fierce winds on the islands, tearing down power lines and ripping roofs off homes.
Residents in Florida meanwhile have been lying in wait for the slow-moving storm over the past two days, and preparing for a storm surge of up to 2 metres.
"I've been prepared since Sunday. I followed my plan," said Patrick Studer, who put boards over the windows in his house and got food, water and a generator ready.
Noting Dorian's slow speed, he said he had to get out Tuesday to keep from feeling crazy while cooped up inside his home in Indian County, but told dpa: "Now it looks like we are almost through this, unless something dramatic happens. We'll see tomorrow."
The native of central Florida said his advice to people who are not used to hurricanes is: "If you ain't prepared, get the hell out, now."
Another Florida resident, John Jupa, was with his wife buying bottled water at a shop near Vero Beach as they prepared to hunker down until the storm passes.
"We've been waiting and waiting for the storm, but now it looks like it is really coming in. Hopefully this will all be over by tomorrow," he told dpa, describing himself as "totally ready" having stockpiled water, food and propane gas for cooking inside his "very solid" house.
Jupa said he is most concerned about the storm surges, which are not like normal waves and can "destroy everything in their way," including cars and houses. "They are so powerful," he said.
The NHC's storm surge warning extends to an area of coastline about 910 kilometres long, from south-east Florida to the middle of North Carolina.
Authorities in Florida, concerned about looting, said that some areas will put curfews into effect on Tuesday night. There also is concern about power outages caused by downed trees.
Orlando's airport was closed and many flights in and out of other major Florida airports were affected, according to flightaware.com.
Dorian's centre at 8 pm was about 180 kilometres east of Cape Canaveral, Florida, the NHC said.dpa