MIAMI – Hurricane Dorian blasted across the Bahamas in a record-setting way on Sunday, tying an 84-year-old record for the most powerful Atlantic hurricane to come ashore as it continued its unrelenting march toward the U.S. East Coast.
The National Hurricane Center said the storm was driving sustained winds of 185 mph, with gusts exceeding 220 mph. That tied the Labor Day hurricane of 1935, which tore through the Florida Keys, killing more than 400 people in the days before hurricanes were given names.
Dorian made landfall in Elbow Cay in the Abaco Islands on Sunday afternoon, then made a second landfall near Marsh Harbor on Great Abaco at 2 p.m.
The raging winds tore off roofs, downed power lines and terrified islanders who sought shelter in schools, churches and other shelters. The few videos that have emerged from the northern islands of the Bahamas show floodwaters streaming over roads and into homes, as residents plea for help in the middle of the slow-moving storm.
Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis urged his residents to flee ahead of Dorian’s landfall, with officials hiring boats to ferry people to islands farther south. Samuel Butler, the assistant commissioner of the Royal Bahamas Police Force, put it bluntly when talking about those who decided to ride out the storm.
“The end could be fatal,” Butler said. “We ask you, we beg you, we plead with you to get to a place of safety.”
Dorian’s slow crawl, estimated at about 5 mph on Sunday afternoon, placed it within 175 miles of West Palm Beach, Florida. But forecasters remained unsure of whether, or where, it might make landfall in the U.S. after it makes an expected turn to the north. That left millions of people from South Florida to North Carolina on alert and preparing for the worst.
“Every indication that we have has the turn (north) somewhere, it’s just a matter of where it’s going to be,” said Ken Graham, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami. “But again, with these systems, sometimes they’ve got a mind of their own.”
In Pahokee, Florida, on the east shore of Lake Okeechobee, residents rely on God, shutters and rope to prepare for hurricanes. Mike and Christhie Meister were putting the finishing touches on shutters on their ranch home.
“Some people around here don’t take it seriously,” Christhie Meister said. “Our biggest concern is the lake. … I’m freaking out.”
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The storm was forecast to continue across Grand Bahama Island Sunday night and Monday. Storm surge in some areas of the Bahamas was expected to exceed 10 feet, posing “serious threat to both life and property across much of the northern Bahamas,” AccuWeather Meteorologist Brandon Buckingham said.
The slow pace of the storm meant some areas could be drenched by up to two feet of rain, adding to the damage, Buckingham said. The Bahamas Labour Ministry warned businesses that “laws regarding price gouging and price hoarding will be scrupulously enforced” over the next several days.
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Hurricane Andrew in 1992 is the only Category 5 hurricane ever to pass through the Bahamas, AccuWeather said. “Right now, it’s the strongest storm that we’ve ever recorded in history in modern times in the Bahamas area, so this is a very dangerous situation,” Graham said.
In the U.S., the hurricane center issued hurricane warnings Sunday afternoon for much of Florida’s east coast, from the Jupiter Inlet in Palm Beach County up to the Volusia/Brevard county line near Cape Canaveral. The hurricane center also issued storm surge warnings for that entire region.
A mandatory evacuation order for parts of Martin County was rescinded. A similar order for Brevard County’s barrier island was postponed for by 24 hours, to 8 a.m. Monday, although shelters began opening at 5 p.m. Sunday.
Florida Power & Light CEO Eric Silagy warned that “significant power outages” were likely in parts of the state and that “parts of the system that will need to be rebuilt.”
The hurricane center’s advisories call for a slower, westward motion over the next day or two, followed by a gradual turn northwest. The hurricane should move closer to the Florida east coast late Monday through Tuesday, the advisories say.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper declared a state of emergency, warning residents that forecasts put the center of Dorian along his state’s coast Thursday and Friday.
Rick Knabb, a hurricane expert at The Weather Channel, said the storm is likely to hammer much of the East Coast even if it never makes landfall in the U.S.
“Regardless of the track relative to Florida, the life-threatening winds and water of the hurricane could reach portions of Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina later this week,” Knabb said.
Category 5 is the strongest rating and includes only hurricanes with sustained winds of at least 157 mph. Meteorologist Ryan Maue tweeted that, if the scale was extrapolated, Category 6 should start at 182 mph.
Forecasters say Dorian’s sustained hurricane winds rank it among the most powerful storms ever recorded in the Atlantic. And it’s still strengthening. Philip Klotzbach, a hurricane expert and meteorologist at Colorado State University, said Dorian has the strongest winds this far north in the Atlantic east of Florida on record.
Dorian is powerful but compact. Satellite images portray the hurricane as a relatively small feature, with hurricane-force winds “only” extending out from the center by about 30 miles, while tropical storm-force winds extend outward from the center of the hurricane by about 105 miles, AccuWeather said. That’s only about half of what is average for a hurricane.
President Donald Trump visited FEMA headquarters and held a conference call with governors and emergency management officials across the Southeast.
“Americans are strong determined and resilient and we will support each other,” Trump said Sunday. “We will work very hard to minimize the effect of whatever is coming at us.”
Bacon reported from McLean, Va. Contributing: Michael Braun and Frank Gluck, Fort Myers News-Press; Amber Roberson, Tallahassee Democrat; Dan DeLuca, Treasure Coast Newspapers
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