McLEAN’S TOWN CAY, Bahamas—Hurricane Dorian struck the northern Bahamas on Sunday, Sept. 9, as a catastrophic Category 5 storm, its 185 mph winds ripping off roofs and tearing down power lines as hundreds hunkered in schools, churches and other shelters.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami says that is tied for the strongest Atlantic hurricane landfall on record with the 1935 Labor Day hurricane.
Dorian hit land in Elbow Cay in the Abaco Islands after authorities made last-minute pleas for those in low-lying areas to evacuate. But officials recognized there were not many structures on higher ground on the largely flat archipelago southeast of Florida.
Millions from Florida to the Carolinas kept a wary eye on the slow-moving Dorian amid indications it would veer sharply northeastward after passing the Bahamas and track up the U.S. Southeast seaboard. But authorities warned that even if its core did not make U.S. landfall and stayed offshore, the potent storm would likely hammer U.S. coastal areas with powerful winds and heavy surf.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami said Dorian’s maximum sustained winds at its 12:45 p.m. landfall were 185 mph, up from 175 mph. It was moving west at 7 mph. “Catastrophic conditions” are occurring in The Abaco Islands and expected across Grand Bahama later in the day, the center said.
The eye of #Dorian has made a second landfall at 2 pm EDT (1800 UTC) on Great Abaco Island near Marsh Harbour. Maximum sustained winds were 185 mph at the time. This is tied for the strongest Atlantic hurricane landfall on record with the 1935 Labor Day hurricane. pic.twitter.com/O9hrotTTbS
— National Hurricane Center (@NHC_Atlantic) September 1, 2019
Dorian’s power was second only to Hurricane Allen in 1980, with its 190 mph winds.
“It’s going to be really, really bad for the Bahamas,” Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach said.
In the northern stretches of the Bahamas archipelago, hotels closed, residents boarded up homes and officials hired boats to move people to bigger islands as Dorian approached.
Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis warned that any “who do not evacuate are placing themselves in extreme danger and can expect a catastrophic consequence.”
Government spokesman Kevin Harris said Dorian was expected to affect 73,000 residents and 21,000 homes. Authorities closed airports for The Abaco Islands, Grand Bahama and Bimini, but Lynden Pindling International Airport in the capital of Nassau remained open.
The slow-crawling storm was predicted to take until Monday afternoon to pass over the Bahamas, and then turn sharply and skirt up the U.S. coast, staying just off Florida and Georgia on Tuesday and Wednesday and then buffeting South Carolina and North Carolina on Thursday.
The National Hurricane Center Sunday morning issued a hurricane watch for Florida’s East Coast from Deerfield Beach north to the Volusia and Brevard county line. The same area was also put under a storm surge watch. Lake Okeechobee was put under a tropical storm watch.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis warned residents along the state’s densely populated Atlantic coast: “We’re not out of the woods yet.”
He suspended tolls on the Florida Turnpike and other roads, including Alligator Alley which crosses the state from Fort Lauderdale to Naples, to help keep traffic flowing for those who choose to evacuate.
DeSantis noted some forecast models still bring Dorian close to or even onto the Florida peninsula.
“That could produce life-threatening storm surge and hurricane force winds,” DeSantis said. “That cone of uncertainty still includes a lot of areas on the east coast of Florida and even into central and north Florida, so we are staying prepared and remaining vigilant.”
Palm Beach County announced a mandatory evacuation for the eastern half of the county as of 1 p.m. Sunday. The evacuation includes mobile homes, substandard housing, low-lying areas prone to flooding and homes along the Intracoastal Waterway and on barrier islands.
For Florida, it’s all going to come down to a matter of a handful of miles between relative safety and potential devastation. On Tuesday and Wednesday, Dorian is forecast to be 40 to 50 miles off the Florida with hurricane-force wind speeds extending about 35 miles to the west.
National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham urged residents not to bet on safety just because the specific forecast track has the storm just a bit offshore. Don’t focus on the track, he said, but the larger cone of possibility that includes landfall.
Making matters more touch-and-go is that with every new forecast, “we keep nudging (Dorian’s track) a little bit to the left” which is closer to the Florida coast, Graham said.
Dorian is a powerful but small hurricane with hurricane force winds Sunday only extending 29 miles to the west, but they are expecting to grow a bit. That makes forecasting the storm’s path—either just off the coast or skirting it—delicate and difficult.
President Donald Trump already declared a state of emergency and was briefed about what he called “a very, very powerful hurricane.”
“We don’t know where it’s going to hit but we have an idea, probably a little bit different than the original course,” Trump said. “But it can change its course again and it can go back more toward Florida.”
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster declared a state of emergency, mobilizing state resources to prepare for potential storm effects. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said the state is likely to see heavy rains, winds and flooding.
The hurricane upended some Labor Day holiday weekend plans in the U.S.: Major airlines allowed travelers to change reservations without fees, big cruise lines rerouted their ships and Cumberland Island National Seashore off Georgia closed to visitors. Disney World and Orlando’s other resorts held off announcing any closings.
By Ramón Espinosa