(Bloomberg) -- Dorian came ashore on tiny Elbow Cay in the Bahamas Sunday as the strongest hurricane ever recorded there, bringing 185 mile-per-hour winds, 10 to 15 inches of rain, and a storm surge that could top 23 feet that could leave the islands devastated for years. The fate of Florida remains uncertain.
The eye of Category 5 Dorian struck about 12:40 p.m. with wind gusts of more than 220 mph (354 kilometers per hour) in addition to its sustained winds, the U.S. National Hurricane Center reported. The storm was centered over Great Abaco Island at 2 p.m. and moving toward the larger, more populous Grand Bahama Island. It was about 185 miles east of West Palm Beach, Florida.
“I wouldn’t want to be on the Abaco Islands, they are going to have 12 to 15 hours of hurricane force winds with only the eye as the respite,” said Jeff Masters, co-founder of Weather Underground, an IBM business. “Everything in that eye is going to get totaled, it is going to take them years, if not a decade, to recover.”
While the devastation mounts in the Bahamas, the threat to Florida and the U.S. East Coast remains uncertain. Fluctuations in weather patterns across the U.S. and Atlantic mean Dorian could hit Florida or further up the coast in Georgia or the Carolinas later this week -- or not make landfall at all.
Even if Dorian remains 50 miles from shore, though, there could be “a long stretch of wind and storm damage” from south Florida all the way to Cape Hatteras, said Todd Crawford, senior meteorological scientist at IBM’s The Weather Co.
“Minor differences on the order of 50 miles in the eventual track and size of Dorian will mean the difference between millions and billions of dollars in damage and between thousands and millions of power outages,” Crawford said in an email.
Only four Category 5 hurricanes have hit the U.S. mainland, although the previous one was less than a year ago, Hurricane Michael in October 2018, said Phil Klotzbach, lead author of the Colorado State University’s seasonal storm forecast. With top winds of 180 mph, Dorian is tied with Gilbert as the strongest Atlantic hurricane ever measured in September.
Dorian “is going off the charts in a hurry,” Klotzbach said.
A mandatory evacuation has been ordered for parts of Florida’s Palm Beach County, including the Mar-a-Lago club owned by Donald Trump, which the president often uses as a “Winter White House.” There’s a hurricane watch from Deerfield Beach to the Volusia/Brevard County line and a tropical storm watch for Lake Okeechobee.
Florida’s fate will hang on the strength of a high pressure system in the western Atlantic and how far Dorian can move west. If that system weakens, then Dorian should veer away from the coastline, which has some of the priciest property in the U.S. If it stays strong, the catastrophic tempest will come perilously close to shore, said Ryan Truchelut, president of Weather Tiger in Tallahassee, Florida.
“The name of the game is forward speed,” Truchelut said. “At this point, monitoring the motion of Dorian tick by tick using radar, satellite, and aircraft observations will reveal potential changes more meaningfully than model guidance; even a 1 mph faster average speed risks bringing the eyewall of Dorian to the east Florida coastline.”
If Dorian doesn’t slow down and stop by Monday, the odds for a strike in Florida rise, said Jim Rouiller, chief meteorologist at the Energy Weather Group outside Philadelphia.
“Florida is not out of the woods until we see it stop and move north,” Rouiller said. “The longer it takes to make the turn, the more Florida is under the gun.”
Hurricanes pack their deadliest winds around the center of the eye. That’s why landfall is so closely monitored because it means the eye has crossed over. Several islands in the Bahamas are in the center of that destructive force.
“A prolonged period of life-threatening storm surge, devastating hurricane-force winds, and heavy rains capable of producing life-threatening flash floods are expected on the Abaco Islands and Grand Bahama through Monday,” said Richard Pasch, a senior hurricane specialist at the center.
Elbow Cay, where Dorian came ashore, was described as having a “New England-meets-the-tropics ambiance” by Coastal Living magazine. A Category 5 hurricane will flatten many homes, snap trees and power lines, and leave the area “uninhabitable for weeks or months,” the hurricane center said.
Dorian, one of five storms to form in the Atlantic so far this year, menaced the U.S. Virgin Islands last week. The storm is now forecast to drift up the East Coast later this week possibly even coming ashore in eastern North Carolina.
Storm surges and flooding remained a serious risk for Florida, in part because the storm coincides with a periodic event known as king tides, especially high tides which frequently cause flooding in South Florida even on sunny days. Its current projected turn would also bring it close to the St. Lucie nuclear power station, home to two nuclear reactors owned by Nextera Energy Inc.’s subsidiary Florida Power & Light.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said at a Sunday afternoon press briefing that he had just participated in a video conference with Trump, who assured him and other governors that the federal government was prepared to deploy all necessary resources.
Speaking from Tallahassee, DeSantis said he expected county evacuation orders to expand, and that more targeted national guard deployments were possible. He suspended tolls on major evacuation routes for affected counties, including along the Florida Turnpike. The shoulders of key roads may also be opened to ease the flow of traffic if necessary, he said. He urged Floridians to obey the evacuation orders.
“This storm, at this magnitude, could really cause massive destruction,” he said. “Do not put your life in jeopardy by staying behind when you have a chance to get out.“
The only storm with comparable wind speeds to affect Florida was the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, which tore through the Florida Keys, according to DeSantis. “That was total, total destruction,“ he said.
DeSantis acknowledged that the storm was expected to turn north, but he said there was little certainty about exactly when and where the turn would take place, and that continued vigilance was needed up and down Florida’s east coast.
In 2016, Hurricane Matthew veered away from Florida without a landfall but still left massive destruction in Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina from torrential rains. Even a glancing blow could cost upwards to $7 billion in damage, Chuck Watson, a modeler with Enki Research, said on his blog.
“We are in a situation here where this thing is perilously close to the state,“ DeSantis said. “I think we should all hope and pray for the best, but we have to prepare that this could have major impacts on the state of Florida, and so that’s what we’re doing.”
So far, DeSantis activated 2,500 Florida National Guard troops, and 1,500 more have been told to be prepared. Dozens of school districts and colleges have announced they’ll close at least through the end of the day Tuesday.
The hurricane center is tracking three other potential storms in the Atlantic. One, near Cabo Verde off Africa, has a 70% chance of becoming a tropical system in the next five days. Another, near the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, has a 30% chance. A third disturbance has popped up several hundred miles south-southeast of Bermuda.
“We are dealing with a historic storm,” Rouiller said. “It is probably the strongest storm we have seen so far on the planet this year and the thing is, it is still intensifying.”
To map assets in Hurricane Dorian’s path, click here
(Updates with meteorologists’ comments starting in third paragraph.)
--With assistance from Sharon Cho, Mark Chediak, David Baker, Will Wade, Todd Shields, Josh Wingrove, Alyza Sebenius and Michael Riley.
To contact the reporters on this story: Brian K. Sullivan in Boston at firstname.lastname@example.org;Jonathan Levin in Miami at email@example.com
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Tina Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org, Ros Krasny, Ian Fisher
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