(Bloomberg) -- After slipping past Puerto Rico, Hurricane Dorian is heading with gathering force toward Florida’s east coast where it may bring 115 mile-per-hour winds and drenching rain when it hits there sometime early next week.
Dorian is set to be the first major hurricane to slam into Florida’s east coast in 15 years. It reached St. Croix and St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands Wednesday afternoon, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami, and is expected to stay over the water, gaining strength in its northwest march toward Florida.
While Puerto Rico’s east end saw heavy rain from the storm’s outer bands, the main part of the island remained largely unaffected, easing concern Dorian might further devastate an island still recovering from Hurricane Maria’s 155 mph winds in 2017. Now, Florida is in Dorian’s crosshairs, spurring concern from residents, vacationers and citrus farmers.
“Really anybody from Miami to Myrtle Beach has to be on guard for this,” said Jake Sojda, a meteorologist with AccuWeather Inc. in State College, Pennsylvania. The error rate for storm projections five days out is usually about 200 miles, he said.
While the official forecast has Dorian reaching Category 3 strength, Ryan Truchelut, president of Weather Tiger LLC in Tallahassee, Florida, said it could grow stronger as it approaches central or southern Florida early next week.
“I am looking at the environment that this is going to be in, and I don’t see what is going to limit it to just a Category 3,” Truchelut said by telephone. “A Category 3 is probably a fairly conservative estimate at this point.”
Heavy rain was hitting the U.S. Virgin Islands Wednesday afternoon, with sustained winds of around 80 mph, the National Hurricane Center reported at 5 p.m. New York time. The high winds extended outward up to 15 miles, according to the center, with lesser winds reaching 80 miles outward. The storm’s outer bands are expected to produce 4 inches to 6 inches of rain in eastern Puerto Rico, the center reported.
Once it gets north of the islands, “all indications are it will go through at least one period of rapid intensification over the next two days, and be a major hurricane by the end of the week,” said Jeff Masters, co-founder of Weather Underground, an IBM business.
The last major hurricane to make landfall along the central coast of Florida carrying winds of 111 mph or more was Jeanne in 2004, said Phil Klotzbach, a hurricane researcher with Colorado State University. Dorian is threatening to become the strongest storm to hit anywhere in Florida since Hurricane Michael last year.
If Dorian moves into central Florida, citrus growers “should be concerned because the event would bring a lot of rain and probably strong winds,” said Donald Keeney, senior agricultural meteorologist at Gaithersburg, Maryland-based Maxar. The state’s biggest producing counties include Hendry, DeSoto, Polk and Highlands, all located in that region.
Dan Richey, president and chief executive officer at Riverfront Packing Co. in Vero Beach, has reasons to be concerned. His company, which has 4,000 acres planted mostly with grapefruit, oranges and lemons, was last hit badly in 2004 by hurricanes Jeanne and Frances, when the company lost between 60% to 70% of the crop.
While Dorian is a smaller storm, “if it follows the current path, it will be quite devastating and impactful to the entire industry,” he said in a telephone interview. His company is draining fields in preparation for a deluge, he said. Orange-juice futures in New York rose to a seven-week high as crop concerns escalated.
SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. said it has no plans to close its central Florida theme parks at this point. Walt Disney Co. didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment.
Carnival Corp., the world’s largest cruise line, has changed the schedules of four of its ships, steering clear of San Juan, for example, as well as the Dominican Republic.
Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., the industry’s second-largest player, has closed its recently remodeled private island in the Bahamas, CocoCay, and won’t reopen it until Sept. 4. The company said over 400 people work on the island, and they need to go home to secure their homes and take care of their families. Passengers who prepaid for activities on that island will get refunds.
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--With assistance from Michael Deibert, Sharon Cho, Bill Lehane, Mark Chediak and Christopher Palmeri.
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