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Women wade through a flooded street after tropical storm Hanna hit the area in Gonaives, Haiti, on Wednesday. Three storms in less than three weeks have killed at least 170 people in the Caribbean nation. ((Ariana Cubillos/Associated Press))

The central and northwestern Bahamas are next in line to be hit by the strengthening tropical storm Hanna, which has left at least 61 dead in Haiti in its wake.

Hanna was just east of the Bahamas and heading northwest early Thursday, a day after knocking out power to the southern Bahamas.

At 8 a.m ET Thursday, Hanna's winds increased to 110 km/h, and the storm was centred about 455 kilometres east-southeast of Nassau. The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Hanna was moving toward the northwest at 19 km/h and could become a hurricane by Friday.

Bahamas National Security Minister Tommy Turnquest cancelled all leave for the Bahamas Royal Defence Force to keep soldiers on standby for disaster response.

"I now urge the general public to take the necessary precautions," Turnquest said at a news conference Wednesday.

Only a few dozen of the Bahamas' roughly 700 islands are inhabited, but they are near sea level and have little natural protection. In the south, Hanna knocked out electricity in Mayaguana Island and forced the closure of some small airports including those in Long Island and Acklins Island.

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This image provided by NOAA was taken at 11:45 p.m. ET on Wednesday. The remains of tropical depression Gustav can be seen over Louisianna and Mississippi and tropical storm Hanna can be seen nearing Haiti. ((NOAA/Associated Press))

The storm was expected to pass near or over the central Bahamas on Thursday before reaching hurricane strength. But the U.S. National Hurricane Center warned its reach was expanding, with tropical-storm force winds extending up to 465 kilometres from the centre.

"Hanna has become a large tropical cyclone," the hurricane centre said.

Long-range forecasts called for the storm to hit anywhere from Georgia to North Carolina on Saturday and curve along the U.S. Atlantic coast.

The storm has drenched the Turks and Caicos and Puerto Rico but wreaked the most havoc in storm-weary Haiti.

3 storms cause more than 170 deaths in Haiti

The tropical storm turned to the northwest Wednesday after lingering for days near Haiti, where officials said flooding from the storm is to blame for 61 deaths.

Haiti is still recovering from drenchings by Hurricane Gustav and tropical storm Fay in the past two weeks. In all, floods and mudslides from the three storms have killed more than 170 people as Haiti's deforested hills melted away in the torrential rains.

Civil Protection Department spokesman Abel Nazaire said 21 of the deaths were in the northern city of Gonaives, which has been almost entirely cut off by floodwaters.

Ike strengthening rapidly

But as Hanna took aim at the heart of this Atlantic archipelago, islanders were also tracking two other storms churning westward in the open ocean, including Hurricane Ike, which rapidly swelled late Wednesday evening into a ferocious Category 4 hurricane.

At 5 a.m. ET Thursday, Ike had maximum sustained winds near 230 km/h. The U.S. National Hurricane Center called Ike "an extremely dangerous" hurricane.

Ike was roaring far out in the Atlantic, 885 kilometres northeast of the Leeward Islands, and forecasters said it was too early to say if it would threaten land. It was moving toward the west-northwest at 28 km/h.

Ike is the third major hurricane of the Atlantic season, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 30. The other two were Bertha and Gustav.

Meanwhile, forecasters said Josephine, the tropical storm behind Ike, was getting stronger early Thursday after weakening on Wednesday. Josephine had maximum sustained winds near 95 km/h and was moving toward the west-northwest at 17 km/h.

"We've got three of them on the way. We've just got to be prepared," said Frank Augustine, a 47-year convenience store manager, as he bought five 75-litre water jugs under blue skies at a Nassau depot.

Maritimes will get foul weather

In Canada, Hanna could bring heavy wind and rain to the Maritimes as early as Sunday, the CBC's Colleen Jones said Thursday.

Hanna's expected to reach hurricane status as it moves past South Carolina, but should weaken to a post-tropical storm as it continues to move north.

The Canadian Hurricane Centre says it's too early to issue details. But Chris Fogarty, with the centre, said he expects a cold front heading east from the Great Lakes will collide with whatever Hanna brings, which usually means bad weather.

"People should keep in mind that systems that come up from the tropics like this do have the potential to bring high winds with them if they stay over the water longer," he said.