NASSAU, Bahamas (AP) _ Hurricane Dennis buffeted fragile Bahamian islands with gale-force winds on Friday and kicked up high surf hundreds of miles away off North Carolina's Outer Banks. Forecasters warned it could strike the east coast of Florida as soon as Saturday.

The governor of North Carolina put state troopers on alert and National Guard troops prepared for storm duty in South Carolina as a hurricane watch was posted for Florida's eastern coast.

Gale-force winds whipped around Harbour Island in the Bahamas and waves from a choppy Atlantic crashed over roadways on the island of Eleuthera, residents said. Locals and tourists alike huddled behind boarded-up windows, said Sharon Rolle, owner of the Coral Sands Hotel.

As the brunt of the storm drew near Friday night, Abaco islanders huddled behind battened down windows or rushed to shelters.

``They (shelters) are very much full,'' said Leeland Russell, assistant superintendent of police at Marsh Harbour on Abaco.

Winds from the storm's weaker side bent trees and tossed around outdoor furniture in the northwest Bahamas, but the hurricane's powerful 80-mph winds threatened to directly strike the Abaco islands, according to meteorologist Todd Kimberlain of the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami.

``That portion of the northern Bahamas is going to be under the gun,'' he said.

At 8 p.m. EDT, Dennis was at a near-stall about 20 miles east of Great Abaco, a sliver of an island no more than 10 miles at its widest, and 315 miles southeast of Cape Canaveral in Florida.

It was expected to resume its west-northwest track near 7 mph overnight and sidle along the Florida coast sometime Saturday. Then it was expected to head further north, near the Carolinas, within three days, Kimberlain said.

Dennis was projected, however, to turn north sometime later Saturday, taking it further from the U.S. coast, he added.

People began preparing for the storm from the Bahamas to the Carolinas, banging wood over windows, battening down roofs and stocking up on supplies.

In South Carolina, Gov. Jim Hodges ordered 1,000 National Guard troops and 500 state troopers to prepare for duty, but no decision was made yet on any possible coastal evacuation.

In North Carolina, emergency planners urged 150,000 coastal residents to get ready for the storm. State troopers and emergency management personnel were placed on alert.

Dennis was expected to strengthen over the next 24 hours, bringing up to 10 inches of rain and tides up to 8 feet above normal. That would threaten fragile coral reefs and trees on islands such as Eleuthera, which already suffered widespread damage from Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Friday night in the Abacos _ a 130-mile chain of sparsely populated islands that were settled by loyalists from New York in 1783 _ black clouds unleashed sheets of rain and wind gusts reached 55 mph.

Club Soleil Resort owner Rudy Malone on Great Abaco island said all the tourists at his hotel had flown out Thursday, but others might be stranded since the island's airport closed Friday morning.

Malone said he saw a group of American tourists among shoppers stocking up on supplies Friday. ``Some people think it's exciting, but that's probably because they've never been through (a hurricane),'' he said.

Bahamasair, the national airline, canceled service to the Abaco islands and most of Eleuthera and telephone operators said some lines were done and other circuits overloaded by traffic.

``The winds have been fierce ... the oceans have been very raging,'' said hotel owner Sharon Rolle on Eleuthera island. ``It's difficult for cars to pass by because there are waves coming over, straight over, the main road so it would cover your cars.''

Hurricane center director Jerry Jarrell said Dennis still ``could become a major hurricane, a borderline Category 3, assuming landfall in South Carolina.'' Category 3 hurricanes have winds of 111 mph to 130 mph.

Kimberlain said the ``saving grace'' was that Dennis was projected to approach Florida with an unusually weak western side, which Jarrell projected might carry winds of 96 mph to 110 mph.

Still, ``We're not letting anyone off the hook anywhere along the coast,'' Kimberlain said.

In Florida, the approaching storm prompted many surfers to skip school and work to catch unseasonably good waves.

``We have the surfers that are here from all over Florida _ Tampa, Fort Lauderdale,'' said Bill Kokotis, owner of the beachside Blueberry Muffin restaurant in Indialantic, 50 miles southeast of Orlando. ``The hurricane passing by out there creates a nice surf and they're all loving it.''

The hurricane watch stretched along 200 miles of Florida's east coast, from Sebastian Inlet north to Fernandina Beach, and was accompanied by a riptide warning.

At Marineland of Florida, 30 miles north of Daytona Beach, employees prepared to protect the park's 19 dolphins, two sea lions, three penguins and hundreds of tropical fish and sea turtles from the storm.

``Our staff will make sure there's no debris that could go into the tanks,'' said general manager David Internoscia.

But Lily, 44, and Nellie, 46, were unfazed by all the commotion.

``They've been through many hurricanes,'' Internoscia said of two of his oldest dolphins. ``They'll stay in their own environment.''