Updated at 11:20 p.m. ET
Hurricane Dorian is predicted to hit Florida and the northern Bahamas this weekend as an extremely dangerous, slow-moving Category 4 storm, bringing intense rains and sustained winds of 130 mph, the National Hurricane Center says.
With favorable conditions and very warm waters ahead, Dorian is expected to have a fearsome growth spurt. As the NHC says in its 11 p.m. ET update, "Hurricane Hunter aircraft find a strengthening Dorian."
The White House announced late Thursday that President Trump abruptly canceled his plans to travel to Poland this weekend because of the hurricane.
Dorian has now left the Caribbean Sea and is over the open Atlantic Ocean, about 295 miles east-northeast of the southeastern Bahamas. It is moving northwest at 12 mph, the National Hurricane Center says, with maximum sustained winds of 105 mph.
"Strengthening is forecast during the next few days, and Dorian is expected to become a major hurricane on Friday, and remain an extremely dangerous hurricane through the weekend," the NHC report adds.
The agency forecasts rain in coastal sections of the Southeast U.S. at between 5 to 10 inches, reaching 15 inches in isolated areas.
"There is an increasing likelihood of life-threatening storm surge along portions of the Florida east coast" on Labor Day weekend, the National Hurricane Center says. "Residents should have their hurricane plan in place, know if they are in a hurricane evacuation zone, and listen to advice given by local emergency officials."
Dorian is expected to make landfall as a major hurricane early Monday. But the storm surge, heavy rains and strong winds will start arriving hours earlier — and many parts of Florida could feel the storm's effects, says NHC Director Ken Graham.
"Please don't think this is just coastal," Graham says in a video update early Thursday morning. "This is over the whole state."
Dorian also is expected to maintain its hurricane status as it moves inland — a process Graham says would be slow and dangerous and could produce "high impacts" through persistent wind and rain.
Pointing to an "M" on the forecast map that denotes Dorian's approach as a major hurricane and then to an "H" near the center of Florida, Graham adds, "That right there is 24 hours. ... That's slow, that's pretty slow movement. Slow is never our friend. ... You'll have a longer period of time when you can get some of those hurricane-force winds."
On the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, a Category 4 storm (with winds from 130-156 mph) can cause catastrophic damage, including damage to well-built frame homes.
"Most trees will be snapped or uprooted and power poles downed," the NHC says in its guide to the wind scale. "Fallen trees and power poles will isolate residential areas. Power outages will last weeks to possibly months. Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months."
Late Thursday, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp declared a state of emergency in 12 counties of his state in anticipation of the hurricane.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency for 26 counties in the current path of the hurricane, citing forecasters' dire predictions of high winds and the chance for a damaging storm surge and flooding.
Dorian is poised to be the most powerful hurricane to strike Florida's east coast in decades. Last year, Hurricane Michael became the first Category 5 hurricane to hit the contiguous United States since Andrew in 1992. But Michael made landfall on the Gulf side of Florida, at Mexico Beach. Dorian could become the first Category 4 or 5 storm to hit the state's east coast since Andrew pummeled Homestead, as meteorologist Philip Klotzbach notes.
In 2017, Hurricane Irma made landfall as a Category 4 storm in the Florida Keys before hitting the state a second time on its Gulf Coast.
Citing data from a NOAA P-3 aircraft, the NHC said in its 11 a.m. ET update that "there is now a double eyewall structure," with a small inner eye that's only 5 nautical miles in diameter inside a larger 25-nautical-mile outer eyewall. The agency added that the concentric structure is likely preventing the hurricane from developing stronger winds, despite a decrease in its central pressure to 986 millibars.
NHC meteorologists say they expect Dorian to expand as it gains power. As of 11 p.m. ET Thursday, it was projecting hurricane-force winds up to 25 miles from its center, with tropical storm-force winds extending up to 105 miles.
On Wednesday, Dorian drenched parts of Puerto Rico, St. Thomas and other islands. The storm became a hurricane as it approached those land masses, with sustained winds of 75 to 80 mph. Despite raising alarms in a string of Caribbean islands, there have been no reports that Dorian caused extensive damage — a relief for areas that are still working to recover from the ravages of Hurricane Maria and Hurricane Irma in 2017.
"Thankfully, there were no reports of major damage here," NPR's Adrián Florido reported from San Juan. He added that in the U.S. Virgin Islands, "there were widespread power outages" in both St. Thomas and St. Croix, along with some flooding.
In Puerto Rico, the newspaper El Nuevo Día said that compared with Maria and Irma, Dorian served as "a great drill" to put the government's response system to a test.
Now it's Florida's turn to prepare. The first tropical storm-force winds could hit the state as early as Saturday night, although the most likely prediction calls for them to arrive on Sunday, the NHC says.
Both DeSantis and Florida's Sen. Rick Scott say they spoke to President Trump on Wednesday night and that he assured them the federal government is ready to help Florida.
Pete Gaynor, acting administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, says the National Response Coordination Center is now at Level 1, its highest level, because of the storm. Listing FEMA's priorities in a tweet, Gaynor says the agency will help in "re-establishing communications & power after the storm & coordinating federal resources to support local government needs."
The American Red Cross is also preparing a potential disaster response, saying it's now "getting volunteers and relief supplies ready and lining up shelters."
The NHC's Graham warns against taking the forecast's five-day cone too literally — and assuming landfall will occur precisely where the current path hits the coast: "Two-thirds of the time, based on our average error over the last five years, you could see the center of this system anywhere inside this cone."
That means that everyone from southern Georgia all the way down to the Florida Keys "really has to pay attention to this system," Graham says.
Dorian is likely to be on a fairly northwestern track until Saturday when it's predicted to make a left turn to the west-northwest. But the timing and angle of that shift remain uncertain, meaning any landfall predictions are very likely to change. Forecast models are predicting a number of potential paths into Florida's coast, ranging from near the Georgia border to South Florida. The current projection is based on a consensus of those predictions.
"We don't want anybody focusing on exactly where the center would come ashore," says NHC spokesman Dennis Feltgen, "because hurricanes, as we know, are not a dot on a map. Their impacts are over a wide area."
The powerful hurricane is heading toward the U.S. mainland days after the Trump administration said it would transfer some $271 million in funds from FEMA to other units in the Department of Homeland Security, citing a need to support the president's border enforcement efforts.
The emergency transfer of money includes $155 million from FEMA's disaster relief fund, according to documents obtained by NPR.
On Thursday, DeSantis said he is not concerned about that transfer, calling it "a political controversy." As NPR's Greg Allen reports, DeSantis said at a midmorning briefing: "They have a huge amount of money available. There's not going to be any limitations on Florida getting whatever it needs to respond to this."
With Dorian still currently at sea, no U.S. coastal watches or warnings are in effect yet. But forecasters say it could skim the northwestern Bahamas on its way to the U.S. mainland.
The Bahamas Department of Meteorology issued a hurricane alert around 10 a.m. local time that covers several islands, including Grand Bahama, Abaco, New Providence and Eleuthera.
The Bahamian agency says residents "should ensure that all hurricane preparations are put in place as they can begin to experience the effects of Hurricane Dorian by Saturday night."
While Dorian caused some flooding and isolated damage in the Caribbean, there were sighs of relief, as leaders gave thanks and schools and businesses prepared to open.
In the British Virgin Islands, the Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport on Beef Island reopened early Thursday.
Giving a summary of the hurricane's effects late Wednesday night, Premier Andrew Fahie said, "Thanks be to God that we have had no reports of loss of lives, serious injuries, major property damage, crimes or problems in relation to businesses being compromised. " Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.