NASSAU, Bahamas – Hurricane Irene damage reports began rolling in Wednesday from the southern Bahamas: a church shorn of a wall on Mayaguana Island, missing boats in the Turks and Caicos, roofing stripped from Crooked Island’s high school and government buildings, downed trees and lost power everywhere.

Extensive, yet not catastrophic — but that was before communication lines largely crashed to isolated, sparsely populated places like Acklins Island, which the eye of the 120-mph storm struck dead-center. And the battering had really just begun, with Irene forecast to grow stronger as it continues to howl across the Bahamas today.

On Long Island, administrator Jordan Ritchie told ZNS, the Bahamas news channel, that gusts had hit 90 mph by the afternoon and the rain was so intense it was hard to see.

“The power is off, the water is off and conditions continue to deteriorate,” he said. “It’s extremely dangerous out there.”

Irene’s destructive core was expected to skirt east of New Providence Island, where most of the Bahamas’ 300,000-plus population lives near Nassau. But Stephen Russell, director of the National Emergency Management Center, was worried about low-lying isolated atolls like Acklins, where he said some longtime residents were insisting on riding it out instead of evacuating to higher ground.

“We are trying to let them know what they are up against,” he said.

They were facing a large, powerful storm expected to only grow more dangerous for the Bahamas and, potentially, for a vast swath of the Atlantic Coast from the Carolinas to New England.

At 8 p.m. EDT, the National Hurricane Center predicted Irene would reach Category 4 strength, with sustained winds as high as 135 mph, before it clears the northeastern Bahamas on Friday. Beyond that, it will lose some steam in cooler waters as it nears the Carolinas on Saturday, but forecasters still expect it to remain a 100-mph, Category 2 storm all the way through Sunday as it nears the New York City-Philadelphia area.

Forecasters also made one significant tweak to Irene’s track. After days of nudging it out to sea, the cone of possible impact shifted west — closer to the coastline — once Irene has moved north of the Florida-Georgia border. There is considerable uncertainty over the timing and effect of a trough expected to steer Irene in three or four days on a more northeasterly track.

One reliable computer model brought the storm 100 miles west, suggesting landfall in North Carolina, but the official track remained over the Outer Banks of North Carolina and then toward densely populated northeastern cities.

“The Northeast and New England are really going to be sweating this thing out,” said Dennis Feltgen, the hurricane center’s spokesman.

Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, cautioned a population that rarely deals with hurricanes to not take the storm lightly.

“I’ve never heard of a minor hurricane,” he said. “Even tropical-force winds can cause damages and power outages well away from the center of circulations.”

Irene, in fact, continued racking up victims after its passage through the Caribbean. Puerto Rico reported that a 62-year-old woman died after trying to cross a swollen river in her car near San Juan. At least three deaths also were reported in the Dominican Republic, with victims drowning in rivers swollen by heavy rainfall, the country’s Center of Emergency Operations confirmed. The center said several other people had been reported missing.

About 85 communities were still isolated after the storm, and the government deployed the military and police to close bridges that crossed flooded rivers.

In the Bahamas, where residents have weathered many storms, Irene was still unsettling — as much for its track as its powerful winds. Irene was churning straight up the spine of a chain of 700 islands and 2,000 small atolls stretching some 500 miles. The hurricane’s massive wind field covered all 29 of the settled islands.

National Emergency Management Agency Director Capt. Stephen Russell said some 365 cays — low islands or sandbars —  in the shallow Exumas archipelago, many with privately owned homes, were at particular risk of being overtopped by a storm surge that could hit 11 feet.

“In 160 years, this is only the third storm to go straight up the channel like this,” Russell said. The last was Floyd in 1999, which devastated three islands. “It was bad. I was here,” he said.

With the islands so widespread, it will take Irene nearly three days to clear the entire chain, and it could take several days after to fully assess damage. The logistics had some Bahamians just starting to prepare, while others were already under the gun.

For Harvey Roberts, the administrator of Mayaguana Island in the southeast Bahamas, Irene really got howling at 10 a.m., with the core of the storm still hours away.

“Things are pretty rough,” he said. “The top of a neighbor’s roof is in my yard. A lot of trees are down. The wind is blowing really, really hard.”

Around the same time, many Nassau residents were still boarding up and stocking up.

Wendy Behrens, a travel representative for German tourists, said stores had already been cleaned out.

“I just boarded up my house with shutters, went shopping for candles, canned goods, water, bread and did the laundry,” Behrens said. “This is a big storm.”

Carpenter Frankie Palacious was in high demand, boarding up downtown businesses Wednesday. “Bay Street (in downtown Nassau) will be a beach tomorrow,” Palacious said. “The tide will be high, and the sand will blow right in.”