Hundreds of weary Bahamians, some carrying small bags of belongings and children on their hips, have disembarked a cruise ship in south Florida after fleeing the catastrophic devastation left by Hurricane Dorian.

The evacuees arrived at the Port of Palm Beach after an all-night voyage on the Grand Celebration, a cruise ship operated by Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line, which offered free passage to the US to a limited number of Bahamians.

"I feel lost between a rock and a weary line but I guess I will make it through," said Thomas Stubbs soon after he got off the ship.

The 42-year-old owner of an air conditioning and refrigeration business in Freeport said he will gather building supplies and return to that city in the next few days to help repair the homes of about 50 family and friends.

"I have a lot, a lot, a lot of stuff lost but I will be back," he said.

Mr Stubbs was one of about 1,100 evacuees who made the 133-kilometre journey from Freeport. Thousands had tried to get on board.

Lanell Andrews, 30, arrived with her one-year-old twins who rode in a double stroller.

"We had to do what we had to do. You had to leave," said Andrews, who will drop off her children with relatives and return to help rebuild her water-damaged home with her husband who remained in Freeport.

"One step at a time," she said. "We are just trying what we can do and hope for the best."

Hurricane Dorian, the most powerful hurricane on record to hit the Bahamas, parked itself over part of the archipelago for almost two days earlier this week, pummeling it with Category 5 winds, with some gusts topping 320kph.

Bahamas leaders believe hundreds and perhaps thousands are missing in the nation of about 400,000 people. The official death toll, which stood at 43 on Friday, was expected to rises harply.

Thousands of people were left homeless on the islands of Grand Bahama and Abaco

Earlier, more than 260 residents of brutally damaged Abaco Island arrived in the capital city of Nassau after spending more than seven hours on a government-chartered ferry, a second of which was expected to arrive overnight.

Health minister Duane Sands confirmed the new death toll of 43, according to US network CNN and Bahamas newspaper The Tribune.

"Forty-three is the official count, many missing and this number is expected to grow significantly," Erica Wells Cox, a spokeswoman for Prime Minister Hubert Minnis, told NBC News.

Of the eventual death toll, Mr Sands had declared previously that "the number will be staggering."

"Literally hundreds, up to thousands, of people are still missing," Joy Jibrilu, the director general of the Bahamian tourism and aviation ministry, told CNN.

Thousands of people were left homeless on the islands of Grand Bahama and Abaco and many were becoming frustrated with the speed of relief and evacuation efforts.

"There's no gas station, no food stores, my job is gone" said Melanie Lowe of Marsh Harbour, whose house was partially destroyed and had packed into a two-bedroom apartment with 16 people before arriving in Nassau.

According to UN relief officials, more than 70,000 people - virtually the entire population of Grand Bahama and Abaco - are in need of assistance after the storm reduced homes to matchsticks and destroyed people's livelihoods.

The US Coast Guard and private organisations have been evacuating residents of Abaco and other islands to Nassau.

The multinational relief effort, which also includes Britain's Royal Navy and several non-governmental organisations, has been hampered by flood damage to airport runways, destroyed piers and docks and downed communications.

Tents and awnings installed at Nassau Airport, not far from rescue planes taking off and landing, provided temporary housing for storm-battered Bahamians.

As survivors began the first steps in rebuilding their lives, arrangements were being made to take care of the dead and the Bahamian authorities were seeking to account for the missing.

Mr Sands said extra morticians and refrigerated coolers to store bodies were being sent to the affected islands.

Mortuary workers in white hazmat suits, blue gloves and masks could be seen in Marsh Harbour carrying corpses in green body bags and loading them onto flatbed trucks.

"As you know, in the United States, we weren't hit nearly as hard as was thought but the Bahamas, you got hit very, very hard," US President Donald Trump said in a video statement on Twitter.

"On behalf of the United States and the people of the United States, we're working hard, we're with you and God bless you," he said.

"Any cruise ship companies willing to act as stationary housing, etc., I am sure would be appreciated!," he also tweeted.

Dorian made landfall meanwhile in the United States as a Category 1 hurricane packing winds of nearly 150 km/h.

The Miami-based National Hurricane Centre said the storm made landfall at Cape Hatteras on North Carolina's Outer Banks, the finger-like barrier islands off the coast.

Flooding was reported in the town of Ocracoke to the southwest of Cape Hatteras.

Thousands of coastal residents of US states from Florida to Virginia had been fearing the worst but the East Coast largely escaped unscathed.

Some flooding occurred in the historic city of Charleston, South Carolina, and tens of thousands of residents lost electricity but no major damage was reported.

At 11:00pm local time, the NHC said Dorian was moving in a northeast direction up the Atlantic coast at 41km/h and was "heading for Nova Scotia in a hurry."

Hurricane-force winds were expected in portions of the Canadian province later on after Dorian's centre passes to the southeast of New England this morning.

The Canadian Hurricane Centre issued a hurricane warning for central and eastern Nova Scotia.