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Hurricane Frances threatens Bahamas

Florida to begin voluntary evacuations Wednesday morning

This satellite image shows Hurricane Frances at 11:45 p.m. Tuesday ET.
Bahama Islands
Turks and Caicos Islands

(CNN) -- Hurricane Frances, a Category 4 storm, took aim at the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands late Tuesday, the National Hurricane Center said.

"The core of the hurricane will be passing near or over the Turks and Caicos Islands ... and the southeastern Bahamas during the next 24 hours," said the NHC.

As of 11 p.m. Tuesday ET, Frances was about 270 miles (430 kilometers) east of Grand Turk island, steaming to the west-northwest at about 16 mph (26 kph). Maximum sustained winds were near 140 mph (220 kph), with higher gusts.

A hurricane warning is in effect for the southeastern Bahamas and for the Turks and Caicos Islands, while hurricane watches have been posted for the central Bahamas.

The storm's march across the Atlantic and Caribbean has prompted Florida emergency officials to take action as the center track of the hurricane center's five-day forecast map predicts it will make landfall Saturday in central Florida.

Because of the extended nature of the forecast, Frances could veer as far south as the Florida Straits or as far north as the Carolinas.

A level-one evacuation -- voluntary, particularly from low-lying areas and from mobile homes -- will go into effect on the state's east coast at 7 a.m. Wednesday, a spokesman for Florida's Emergency Management Agency said.

"We're expecting tropical storm-force winds [40 mph and higher] by late Friday or early Saturday," the spokesman said. "Today is a transition day for the state of Florida. ... Our primary focus will be on Hurricane Frances."

A spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency said that focus would not hinder Florida's recovery from Hurricane Charley, which slammed ashore on the state's west coast last month as a Category 4 storm, killing 25 people and leaving thousands temporarily homeless.

"This is what we do," he said. "We have plenty of resources."

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