Hurricane Joaquin weakened slightly as its eye passed over San Salvador, Bahamas, Friday afternoon with sustained winds of 205 kilometres per hour.
The storm, which has dropped in intensity to category 3 from category 4, is forecast to turn northeast and away from the US mainland, according to the US National Hurricane Centre in Miami.
“Some slow weakening is forecast during the next 48 hours,” the centre said.
As of 5 pm (2100 GMT), Joaquin was around 25 kilometres west north-west of San Salvador in the Bahamas, moving north at 11 kilometres per hour.
Most recent projections show the storm staying well off the US coast, though storm surge and heavy rain could still bring serious flooding.
The US Coast Guard said Friday that it is searching from both air and sea for a missing cargo ship near Crooked Island, Bahamas.
The 224-metre El Faro, en route from Jacksonville, Florida, to San Juan, Puerto Rico, has 33 crew onboard and was last heard from on Thursday, according to the Coast Guard.
Rainfall of more than 50 centimetres is possible in the Bahamas, as well as “life-threatening” storm surge of up to 4 metres above normal, according to the latest advisory.
Schools were closed in the Bahamas Friday while all government offices were to close by noon. There were reports of widespread flooding, roofs being blown off buildings, and power outages.
Photos posted to the Bahamas Press website show severe flooding on Crooked and Long islands.
In the United States, preparations began Thursday in states along the Atlantic Coast for a possible Joaquin landfall.
New Jersey, where some beach communities were devastated by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and Virginia each declared states of emergency.
On Friday, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley declared a state of emergency in expectation of flooding from 10 to 15 inches of rain that the state may experience even with the storm far offshore.
The governor of North Carolina called for flood preparations on Thursday.
The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale has five levels, with category 5 being the strongest with winds of at least 252 kilometres per hour.
Joaquin is the third and strongest hurricane of the 2015 season, following Danny and Fred.