Hurricane Dorian: 150 mph winds; threatens Florida, Georgia, Carolinas

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According to the latest models, the monster storm – almost a Category 5 – may rake much of Florida’s east coast before possibly hitting Georgia and the Carolinas.

What you need to know: 

The major, Category 4 hurricane is continuing to track toward the Bahamas, threatening the islands with devastating amounts of rain, dangerous storm surge, and extremely high winds. 

The National Hurricane Center in Miami says maximum sustained winds of powerful Hurricane Dorian stood at 150 mph as of 8 p.m. EDT Saturday – just slightly less than the 157 mph wind speed that constitutes a catastrophic Category 5 storm.

Dorian’s center was 155 miles east of the Great Abaco in the Bahamas and 335 miles east of West Palm Beach, Florida. It was expected to be near or over the northwestern Bahamas early Sunday.

The storm was traveling west at 8 mph and was expected to move near the Florida east coast late Monday through Tuesday.

States of emergency have been declared in parts of Georgia and the Carolinas, in addition to Florida.

Where Dorian is headed:

The storm is expected to hit the northwestern part of the Bahama islands Sunday. Over two or three days, it could dump as much as 4 feet of rain, unleash high winds and whip up an abnormal rise in sea level called storm surge, according to private meteorologist Ryan Maue and some of the most reliable computer models.

After walloping the islands, forecasters said the ever-strengthening Dorian is expected to dance up the Southeast coastline, staying just off Florida’s shore and skirting the coast of Georgia, with the possibility of landfall still a threat Wednesday. It will continue up to South Carolina early Thursday.

With peak winds of 150 mph, Hurricane Dorian is as imposing and threatening as ever as it churns toward Florida and the Southeast United States. But because of a shift in model forecasts toward the east, it is possible that Florida may miss the full fury of this severe hurricane while areas farther north into coastal Georgia and the Carolinas face an increasing risk.

Even so, the National Hurricane Center is urging Floridians not to let their guard down and to continue preparing for an “extremely dangerous” hurricane.

“Life-threatening storm surge and devastating hurricane-force winds are still possible along portions of the Florida east coast by the early to middle part of next week,” it wrote as a key message in its bulletin. “Residents should have their hurricane plan in place, know if they are in a hurricane evacuation zone, and listen to advice given by local emergency officials.”

The Hurricane Center shifted its official forecast track east, just off the Florida coast, but still within striking distance of the state. “It should be noted that the new forecast track does not preclude Dorian making landfall on the Florida coast, as large portions of the coast remain in the track cone of uncertainty,” it wrote. “Also, significant impacts could occur even if the center stays offshore.”

If the storm makes a close pass to Florida, tropical-storm-force winds could arrive as soon as Sunday or Sunday night. 

8 p.m. Saturday update: Dorian was about 335 miles east of West Palm Beach, Florida, with maximum sustained winds at 150 mph. 

In its 8 p.m. update, meteorologists from the National Hurricane Center said Palm Beach County is under a tropical storm watch, and they warned against complacency throughout the state. “The uncertainty in the track is high while the hurricane is moving slowly across the northwestern Bahamas and near the east coast of Florida,” the forecast warned. “Any deviation of Dorian’s core to the left would result in an increase in the winds along the east coast of Florida.”

5 p.m. Saturday update: The National Hurricane Center issued a tropical storm watch for a swath of Florida’s east coast, from Deerfield Beach to Sebastian Inlet, meaning winds of that strength could reach the coast in 48 hours.

2 p.m. Saturday update: The storm was centered 205 miles east of Great Abaco in the Bahamas, and was headed west at 8 mph. While not explicitly forecast, it’s possible the storm will reach Category 5 intensity for a time on Saturday.

11 a.m. Saturday update: Maximum sustained winds from Hurricane Dorian reached 150 mph Saturday morning as the Category 4 storm neared the Bahamas, the National Hurricane Center said.

In its 11 a.m. update, the storm was 415 miles east of West Palm Beach and moving westward at about 8 mph. It is expected to remain on this slower, westward path at least into the early part of the week.

The center line of Dorian’s latest projected path has it grazing Brevard County as a Category 3 storm Tuesday night, then veering north off the coast of northeast Florida.

That’s a significant change from Friday morning, when the forecast’s center line pointed squarely at Palm Beach County and meteorologists predicted Dorian would strike as a Category 4 storm.

The northward shift in the forecast comes amid new indications that a high-pressure ridge preventing the storm from moving north may experience “more significant weakness” than expected, the National Hurricane Center said.

The weakening of the mid-Atlantic ridge “allows Dorian to turn northwestward, then northward near the east coast of Florida,” forecasters said in the 11 p.m. forecast.

But the hurricane center warned that the storm’s center path is an uncertain one and that any area in the cone of possibility is at risk.

“Although the official forecast track has been nudged northeastward to near the east coast of Florida the risk of significant impacts over much of the Florida peninsula remains high,” the forecast said.

Preparations for the storm

In Florida

As Dorian closed in, Labor Day weekend plans were upended. Major airlines began allowing travelers to change their reservations without fees. The big cruise lines began rerouting their ships. Disney World and Orlando’s other resorts could be at risk.

Still, with Dorian days away and its track uncertain, Disney and other major resorts held off announcing any closings, and Florida authorities ordered no immediate mass evacuations.

But some counties told residents of barrier islands, mobile homes and low-lying areas to flee beginning Sunday — though those orders in Brevard and Martin counties could change.

To prepare, homeowners and businesses rushed to cover their windows with plywood. Supermarkets ran out of bottled water, and long lines formed at gas stations, with some fuel shortages reported.

At a Publix supermarket in Cocoa Beach, Ed Ciecirski of the customer service department said the pharmacy was extra busy with people rushing to fill prescriptions. The grocery was rationing bottled water and had run out of dry ice.

“It’s hairy,” he said.

Coastal areas of the southeastern United States could get 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 centimeters) of rain, with 18 inches (46 centimeters) in some places, triggering life-threatening flash floods, the hurricane center said.

Georgia and the Carolinas:

Although the risk of a hurricane disaster has decreased some in Florida, it has become more likely that coastal Georgia to the Carolinas will have to deal with serious effects from Dorian by the middle of next week.

“The risk of strong winds and life-threatening storm surge is increasing along the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina,” the Hurricane Center wrote. But even here, there is large uncertainty in the storm track.

Officials in Savannah, Georgia, warned the public to pay attention to the forecast and be prepared to evacuate if needed. Dorian’s slow speed makes it an even scarier threat.

“So the slower it goes, the more uncertainty the track forecast has,” said Dennis Jones, director of emergency management in Chatham County. “The slower it goes, the more chance that has to build an intensity. They’re forecasting to become a Category 4 storm make landfall as a Category 4 storm moving at 5 miles per hour. So that’s going to devastate the community, wherever it makes landfall.”

Irrespective of the storm’s ultimate course near Florida’s east coast to the North Carolina Outer Banks – or even inland – significant coastal flooding is likely due to the force of Dorian’s winds and astronomically high or “King” tides.

The shape of the coastline from northern Florida through the Carolinas means there is a risk of significant storm-surge flooding there even if the storm’s center remains just offshore.

In South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster declared a state of emergency Saturday afternoon in preparation for the storm.

“The executive order enables all state agencies to coordinate resources and sets into effect the State Emergency Operations Plan,” according to the S.C. Emergency Management Division.

“The declaration by the governor also authorizes state and local emergency management agencies to begin mobilizing assets and resources to be staged along the coast ahead of any potential impact from Hurricane Dorian.”

In coastal Wilmington, North Carolina, where slow-moving Hurricane Florence brought devastating flooding less than a year ago, long lines formed at gas stations during the typically busy Labor Day weekend. At grocery stores, the preparation for Dorian were clearly underway. Some people reported shelves already cleared of water on Saturday.

“The track will definitely continue to change, but to what degree we don’t know,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Jordan Baker. “It’s been changing so much, and we still have a lot to go. But we want people to have a plan now, so if we get closer and there looks like there could be impacts, you will be ready.”

 In the Bahamas:

Dorian shut down most major resorts in the Bahamas and forced authorities to evacuate much of the northern shore and low-lying islands Saturday as the storm prepared to unleash torrents of rain and howling winds.

Any remaining tourists were sent to government shelters in schools, churches and other buildings offering protection from the storm.

The Bahamas should see hurricane conditions by Sunday, the hurricane center said, with “life-threatening” storm surges that are expected to raise water levels by 10 to 15 feet, with “large and destructive” waves near the coast.

“A prolonged period of life-threatening storm surge and devastating hurricane-force winds are expected in portions of the northwestern Bahamas, particularly on the Abaco Islands and Grand Bahamas Island,” the hurricane center said in its 11 a.m. update.

Canned food and bottled water were disappearing quickly from shelves and the sound of hammering echoed across the islands as people boarded up their homes.

“Do not be foolish and try to brave out this hurricane,” Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said. “The price you may pay for not evacuating is your life.”