Strong winds, heavy rain hit Bahamas as Tropical Storm Rita gathers strength, heads West

Heavy rain and strong winds lashed the Bahamas on Monday as Tropical Storm Rita crossed the island chain, gathering strength as the system headed toward Cuba and the southeastern United States.

Rita, the 17th named storm of the Atlantic season, was expected to become a hurricane later in the day as it passed the central island of Exuma and the northwest island of Andros, said Bahamas Chief Meteorologist Arnold King.

Storm surge flooding of 3 to 5 feet (0.9 to 1.5 meters) was possible along the coast of the northwestern Bahamas, which was under a hurricane warning, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

Authorities in the island chain urged people to stay home, shutter their windows and secure loose items around their houses that could be carried off by the wind.

"Houses in the Bahamas are constructed to withstand hurricane force winds," King said. "They may lose their shingles, not their roofs in this storm."

At 2 p.m. EDT, Rita had sustained winds near 70 mph (115 km/hr), the hurricane center said. Tropical storms become hurricanes when their sustained winds reach 74 mph (119 km/hr).

The storm was moving west at 14 mph (23 km/hr) and centered about 165 miles (265 kilometers) east-southeast of Nassau, the Bahamian capital.

Tropical storm force winds extended outward up to 145 miles (230 kilometers).

Some public schools were closed throughout the Bahamas as the storm worked its way up the chain of islands. In the capital, Nassau, business went on as usual.

On central Grand Exhuma Island, Rita's winds jostled palm trees along mostly abandoned streets, while the 183-room Four Seasons Resort gave staff the option of going home early until the storm passed.

On southern Cat Island, some residents shuttered their windows and stocked up on emergency supplies but most seemed unconcerned about the storm, said Madlyn Campbell, owner of the Sea Spray Hotel.

Rita dumped 3-5 inches (76-127 millimeters) of rain as it passed over the Turks and Caicos Islands on Sunday and was expected to bring up to 8 inches (203 millimeters) in isolated areas of central Bahamas, forecasters said.

A hurricane warning was issued for parts of Cuba and the Florida Keys and the extreme southern Florida peninsula, meaning hurricane conditions were possible for those areas in the next 24 hours, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

Long-term forecasts show Rita hitting anywhere from Mexico to Mississippi by the end of the week.

This the fourth busiest season since record keeping began, according to the U.S. center. The season started June 1 and ends Nov. 30.

Meanwhile, a storm system east of the Leeward Islands developed late Sunday into Hurricane Philippe, the eighth of the season, with maximum winds of 75 mph (120 km/hr). There was no immediate threat to land, authorities said.

At 2 p.m. EDT, the hurricane was 165 miles (539 kilometers) east of the Leeward Islands, which include Guadeloupe and Antigua, and was moving north at 6 mph (9.7 kilometers), according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami, AP reported.

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