Hurricane Dorian struck the northern Bahamas as a catastrophic Category 5 storm Sunday, its record 185 mph winds ripping off roofs, overturning cars and tearing down power lines as hundreds hunkered down in schools, churches and shelters.
The hurricane was approaching the eastern end of Grand Bahama island in the evening, forecasters said.
With its maximum sustained winds of 185 mph and gusts up to 220 mph, Dorian tied the record for the most powerful Atlantic hurricane ever to come ashore, equaling the Labor Day hurricane of 1935, before the storms were named.
There were indications that the slow-moving Dorian would veer sharply northeastward after passing the Bahamas and track up the east coast of Florida. But authorities warned that even if its core did not make U.S. landfall, the potent storm would likely hammer the coast with powerful winds and heavy surf.
“Hurricane Dorian is the strongest storm to ever threaten the state of Florida on the East Coast,” said Florida Department of Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz. “No matter what path this storm takes, our state will be impacted. We will continue to work around the clock to prepare.”
The only recorded storm that was more powerful was Hurricane Allen in 1980, with 190 mph (305 kph) winds. That storm did not make landfall at that strength.
As of Sunday at 11 p.m., Dorian's maximum sustained winds weakened slightly to 180 mph, with gusts over 200 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center. Dorian's western eyewall was approaching the eastern tip of Grand Bahama Island and was located about 135 miles east of West Palm Beach, continuing to crawl east at just 6 mph.
The storm was forecast to weaken slightly, but fluctuations in intensity could occur over the next two days, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Even though the center of Hurricane Dorian is forecast to remain off the east coast of Florida, Florida Public Radio Emergency Network Meteorologist Megan Borowski says there is an increasing chance of significant impacts.
“We’re looking at a track - and this is just the center - that’s only 30 or so miles offshore,” Borowski said. “Even though the storm might fluctuate in intensity some over the next two or three days, Dorian is expected to grow in geographic size. That’s why we’re becoming more concerned about hurricane or tropical storm conditions affecting the warned areas.”
The eyewall of Hurricane Dorian hit the Abaco islands with devastating winds and will continue near or over Grand Bahama Island later Sunday and Monday, according to the hurricane center advisory from the National Hurricane Center. The hurricane should move closer to the Florida east coast late Monday through Tuesday night.
Hurricane-force winds now extend up to 45 miles from the center of Dorian, and tropical-storm-force winds extend outward up to 140 miles, the advisory said. Forecasters say that distance could expand.
Tropical storm warnings are extending to more parts of Florida’s east coast on Sunday evening as Hurricane Dorian is still forecast to come perilously close to Florida before skirting the Southeast.
The National Hurricane Center issued a hurricane warning from Jupiter inlet to the Volusia/Brevard county line. A hurricane watch is in effect from north of Deerfield Beach to Jupiter Inlet and from the Volusia/Brevard county line to the mouth of the St. Mary’s River. A tropical storm warning is in effect from north of Deerfield Beach to Jupiter Inlet.
A tropical storm watch in effect from north of Golden Beach to Deerfield Beach and for Lake Okeechobee. The National Weather Service also issued a tropical storm watch for Polk and Highlands counties. Tropical storm conditions could occur Monday night into Tuesday.
Additionally, a storm surge warning has been issued from Lantana to the Volusia/Brevard county line and a storm surge watch has been issued from the Volusia/Brevard county line to the mouth of the St. Mary’s River.
Mandatory evacuation orders have been issued for coastal areas of Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie and Brevard counties, and St. Johns County will issue an evacuation order on Monday. Governor Ron DeSantis suspended tolls on Florida’s Turnpike, and some other toll roads across the state.
Tropical storm force winds could also reach parts of South Florida and the Space Coast on Monday, gradually spreading toward Daytona Beach and the First Coast on Tuesday, Huffman said. Hurricane force winds are becoming less likely and should stay offshore.
Hurricane center forecasters predict 4-7 feet of storm surge from Jupiter Inlet to the Brevard/Volusia county line, and 2-4 feet from north of Deerfield Beach to Jupiter Inlet.
Dorian was hammering the northwestern Bahamas with 12-24 inches of rain, with 30 inches in isolated areas, that forecasters say will produce life-threatening flooding and storm surge.
A high pressure ridge that has helped steer Dorian to the east is expected to weaken by Sunday night, according to the latest hurricane center forecast discussion, which could slow Dorian to a near-standstill near the Bahamas into Tuesday. This helped Dorian further intensify before it's forecast to weaken slightly – but still remaining a strong Category 4 storm in the next 36-48 hours.
Dorian will then move “farther to the west during the next couple of days,” flirting with a Florida landfall late Monday through Tuesday night before taking the anticipated turn to the north starting Tuesday and hugging the coast into the Carolinas into Thursday.
COMPLETE COVERAGE: Dorian stories from WUSF and throughout the state
“Although the official track forecast does not show landfall, users should not focus on the exact track since a Florida landfall is still a distinct possibility,” according to Senior Hurricane Specialist Richard Pasch's Sunday morning forecast discussion.
Even if Dorian spares a direct Florida hit, it is forecast to generate hurricane-force winds, large swells, and life-threatening surf and rip currents along the east coast, along with 2-4 inches of rain – and 6 inches in isolated areas.
Coastal flooding is likely, regardless of how close Dorian gets to the state, Huffman said. The new moon is causing high astronomical tides during the times of high tide. The National Weather Service in Jacksonville has issued Coastal Flood Advisories. Tidal departures may reach 1 to 2 feet above normal this weekend.
Coastal areas in the Carolinas, however, are forecast to receive 5-10 inches, and 15 inches in isolated areas.
Florida Public Radio Emergency Network meteorologists Jeff Huffman and Ray Hawthorne, and information from the Associated Press contributed to this report.