Dorian strengthens to Category 5 hurricane off northwestern Bahamas

Weather forecasters say Hurricane Dorian intensified to a Category 5 storm on Sunday near the northwestern Bahamas.

The National Hurricane Center (NHC) in Miami said the storm’s maximum sustained winds have increased to 260 km/h, up from 240 km/h earlier in the morning, and is moving west at 13 km/h.

“Devastating hurricane conditions” are expected in the Abacos Islands early Sunday, with conditions that will spread across Grand Bahama Island later in the day, the centre said.

In its 8 a.m. ET advisory, the NHC said the storm’s centre is 55 kilometres east of Great Abaco Island and 360 kilometres east of West Palm Beach.

As the dangerous storm approached, people in the Bahamas hunkered down in schools, churches and other shelters. 

Millions of people from Florida to the Carolinas kept a wary eye on Dorian, meanwhile, amid indications it would veer sharply northeastward after passing the Bahamas and track up the U.S. Southeast Seaboard.

But authorities warned even if its core did not make landfall in the U.S. and stayed offshore, the potent Category 4 storm would likely hammer coastal areas with powerful winds and heavy surf.

In the northern stretches of the Bahamas archipelago, hotels closed, residents boarded up homes and officials hired boats to move people from low-lying areas to bigger islands as Dorian approached.

Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis warned that Dorian is a “dangerous storm” and said any “who do not evacuate are placing themselves in extreme danger and can expect a catastrophic consequence.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis asked Floridians to keep Bahamians in their thoughts.

“The Bahamas are going to get absolutely levelled by this thing because this thing’s a strong storm. The Bahamas are flat. They got no defence to this storm and it’s going to churn over there; it’s going to dump perhaps two feet of rain on the Bahamas,” DeSantis said on Saturday.

Small skiffs shuttled Saturday between outlying fishing communities and McLean’s Town, a settlement of a few dozen homes at the eastern end of Grand Bahama island, about 240 kilometres from Florida’s Atlantic coast. Most people came from Sweetings Cay, a fishing town of a few hundred people about 1.5 metres above sea level.

“We’re not taking no chances,” said Margaret Bassett, a ferry boat driver for the Deep Water Cay resort. “They said evacuate, you have to evacuate.”

Over two or three days, the slow-moving hurricane could dump as much as one metre of rain, unleash devastating winds and whip up a dangerous storm surge, said meteorologist Ryan Maue, seconding some of the most reliable computer models.

Government spokesperson Kevin Harris said Dorian was expected to impact some 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.

‘You prepare for the worst’

Jeffrey Allen, who lives in Freeport on Grand Bahama, said he had learned after several storms that sometimes predictions of damage don’t materialize — but he still takes precautions.

“It’s almost as if you wait with anticipation, hoping that it’s never as bad as they say it will be. However, you prepare for the worst nonetheless,” he said.

Workers board up the windows of an insurance office in Pompano Beach, Fla., as they prepare for Hurricane Dorian on Saturday. (Adam Delgiudice/AFP/Getty Images)

On average, the Bahamas archipelago gets a direct hit from a hurricane every four years, officials said. Construction codes require homes to have metal reinforcements for roof beams to withstand winds into the upper limits of a Category 4 hurricane, and compliance is generally tight for residents who can afford it. Risks are higher in poorer communities, which typically have wooden homes and are generally in lower-lying areas.

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.

DeSantis warned residents along Florida’s densely populated Atlantic coast, “We’re not out of the woods yet.” He noted some forecast models still bring Dorian close to or even onto the Florida peninsula.

Remaining vigilant in Florida

“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.”

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster declared a state of emergency, mobilizing state resources to prepare for potential storm effects. U.S. President Donald Trump already declared a state of emergency and was briefed late Saturday about the storm.

The hurricane upended some Labour Day holiday weekend plans in the U.S.: Major airlines allowed travellers to change their 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.

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