Gathering strength tropical storm Rita hits Bahamas, heads west

People shuttered windows, pulled boats ashore, and streets emptied as Tropical Storm Rita blew across the Bahamas, gathering strength as it headed toward the Florida Keys and threatened to become a hurricane.

There were no reports of damage or injuries as the 17th named storm of the Atlantic season cleared most of the Bahamas. But Rita was still a threat to the low-lying western island of Andros, the chain's largest, forecasters said.

"It's battering Andros right now with a lot of rain and a lot of wind," Bahamas Weather Service Forecaster Geoffrey Greene said.

Rita was expected to pass Andros, and clear the island chain, by early Tuesday.

Forecasters said the storm could strengthen to a hurricane within hours and warnings were posted for the northwestern Bahamas, including Andros, as well as parts of Cuba, the Keys and parts of the Florida coast.

"The palm trees are swaying and we've got 6 to 10 feet (1.8 to 3 meters) waves. It's very, very rough out there," said Ray Mackie, the owner of Tranquility Hill fishing lodge on Andros.

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.

"We expect damage to roofs, damage to utility lines ... trees blowing across the roadway, Bahamas Chief Meteorologist Arnold King said.

Storm surge flooding of 3 to 5 feet (0.9 to 1.5 meters) was also possible along the coast of the northwestern Bahamas, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said, reports the AP.

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