The storm developed “a distinct eye” Friday, the National Weather Service said, as it moved into an area of the Atlantic with warm waters and low wind shear. The hurricane’s winds reached 130 mph late Friday, earlier than expected, and are likely to continue to increase until landfall, making it potentially catastrophic.
“The precise path is still somewhat uncertain, but the intensity, I think there’s a pretty high degree of certainty that this is going to be a major hurricane, Category 4, even Category 4-plus,” DeSantis said.
The governor said the Florida Highway Patrol will be escorting gasoline tankers throughout the state “to ensure fuel reaches critical areas more quickly.” Fuel shortages during the huge evacuation before Hurricane Irma in 2017 left people trying to flee the storm stranded on the side of the Florida Turnpike. DeSantis doesn’t want to see that happen again, and he also advised that people “shelter locally” if they can to avoid snarling major highways.
“Make the preparations that you need,” DeSantis said. “You have some time, but that time is running out.”
In response to a request from DeSantis, President Trump declared a statewide emergency Friday and ordered federal assistance to all 67 counties in the state. Dorian’s uncertain path through the tropics became more targeted Friday, as upper-level steering winds were expected to funnel the hurricane more west than north. Originally thought to be a Labor Day threat, forecasts pushed the storm well into Tuesday as it slowed.
DeSantis emphasized preparations in situations that caused trouble during Hurricane Irma, including gas shortages, bumper-to-bumper traffic on evacuation routes and dangerous temperatures in nursing homes. Twelve residents of the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills died in sweltering heat in the days after Irma hit. Three people were charged this week in connection with those deaths, which officials said happened because the nursing home did not evacuate and did not have a generator to cool the building.
Residents here in Palm Beach County started stockpiling resources midweek, even before Palm Beach was in the target range for landfall.
“I didn’t want to wait,” Anthony Capalbo said as he loaded plywood into his truck at a West Palm Beach Home Depot. “I’ll probably wait until the last minute to board up the house, but I wanted to have the supplies.”
Along with being strong, Hurricane Dorian is also slow, moving at just 9 mph. The specter of a hurricane lingering off the coast reminded many residents of Category 3 Hurricane Jeanne in 2004, which sat in the ocean near the shores of Martin, Palm Beach and nearby counties for more than 24 hours. Jeanne was one of the deadliest storms in the Atlantic basin, killing more than 3,000 people in Haiti before striking Florida and causing $7.5 billion in damage in the United States.
An hours-long pummeling by a Category 4 storm is a nightmare scenario, said Rick Gonzalez, an architect in West Palm Beach who has worked at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago property for more than 25 years.
“Another Jeanne, but even stronger, would be bad,” Gonzalez said, noting that Trump’s Winter White House is ready to withstand a major hurricane.
Beachgoers on Friday afternoon said Hurricane Dorian was on their minds. The water was choppy, but the sky was mostly clear.
“I hope we can get out in time,” said Liliana DelRio, a travel agent from Argentina. “It’s nice out now, but we’re worried about the hurricane.”
Louise Lord lived in Palm Beach until 2017, the year she evacuated the island before Hurricane Irma hit. It took her 12 hours to make the three-hour drive to Orlando in what was one of Florida’s worst traffic jams. She now lives just across the Intracoastal Waterway from Palm Beach.
“I’m staying, but I’m worried,” Lord said. “It’s sounding scary.”
Along the Florida Space Coast, NASA and several space companies were scrambling to prepare ahead of the storm.
At the Kennedy Space Center on Friday morning, crews began the arduous process of hauling a 400-foot-tall mobile launch tower from pad 39B to inside a hulking building a few miles away for safekeeping — at about 1 mph. Sitting just a few hundred yards from the coast, the tower could be affected by the winds, though NASA officials said relocating it was a “precautionary measure.”
Nearby, Boeing is building its Starliner spacecraft, designed to fly NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. The United Launch Alliance, the joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, said it was also taking precautions to secure its buildings and hardware. The majority of its launch facilities were designed to withstand wind speeds of 130 mph or higher.
“The pads themselves are pretty durable,” said Dale Ketcham, vice president of government relations for Space Florida, a state economic development agency. “They take a beating anyway during launch.”
Where Dorian is expected to land is densely residential but also rich in some of the state’s most lucrative agricultural products: citrus, vegetables, ornamental plants and cattle.
Crop and livestock production, forestry and fishing in the 21-county region generated more than $4.2 billion in revenue and directly supported more than 63,000 jobs in 2017, the most recent year for which data is available. Overall, the region includes nearly 750,000 acres in agricultural production.
Florida’s citrus industry might be the most vulnerable, having endured a series of setbacks in recent years, from dwindling orange juice sales to ongoing citrus greening disease to Hurricane Irma in 2017, which affected nearly 80 percent of the state’s 411,000 acres of groves. Farmers experienced widespread fruit loss and the destruction of more than 3 million citrus trees, said Christa Court, assistant director of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Economic Impact Analysis Program.
“In Irma, the largest loss was fruit crop, branch damage and flooding in the groves that caused root damage and a slight decrease in productivity,” Court said. “What usually puts people out of business is not a single year of loss, it’s slow relief payments. After Irma, the Wildfires and Hurricane Indemnity Program took two years to administer.”
According to experts, little can be done to prepare or protect the state’s citrus from wind or storm damage, but Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said the state has made efforts to lower water levels in canals to minimize the amount of time citrus trees spend in standing water.
Florida also produces about 75 percent of the country’s tropical foliage and houseplants, said Ben Bolusky, chief executive of the Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association. Total structural damage and crop loss for the state’s ornamental plant industry was $630 million after Hurricane Irma, the densest concentration of operations in Miami-Dade, Orange and Palm Beach counties, all areas centered in the cone for Dorian.
Some of the state’s most fledgling industries could also take it on the chin in this storm.
Sturgeon Aquafarms, which produces caviar and sturgeon meat at its farm in Bascom, Fla., is still reeling from the aftermath of Hurricane Michael last year. The brainchild of Russian-born Mark Zaslavsky, the farm has 21,000 beluga sturgeon he anticipates bringing to market in the next few months. Zaslavsky said he is financially struggling while waiting for the U.S. Agriculture Department to approve disaster financial relief to include aquaculture in the Supplemental Appropriations of Disaster Relief Act of 2019. Even a glancing blow from Dorian could jeopardize his business prospects.
“We would be bankrupt,” Zaslavsky said Friday.
Fried said that for other Florida crops that are harvestable — such as sugar cane and avocados — she has lifted all trucking weight-limit regulations so farmers are free to transport crops to safety before the storm hits.
About 20 miles inland, in Loxahatchee, animal caretakers at Lion Country Safari were doing their own preparations. One of the oldest “cageless zoos” in the country, the attraction has lions, giraffes and other animals that need to be kept safe. Many of them — including Mo the sloth — will be kept in hurricane-safe buildings. But other animals, such as the zebras and antelopes, will be left out to range around the park’s 320 acres.
“These guys have a fight-or- flight instinct. If you put them inside where they can’t see what’s going on, it primes their panic and makes them want to flee, and they can injure themselves,” said spokeswoman Haley Passeser. “They prefer to be out in the open. They’ll find a low spot and hunker down and turn their rumps to the wind and just ride it out.”
In Fort Lauderdale, along the South Florida coast, gas stations were empty, stores were sold out of water, and grocery shelves were barren. Many in the area are hurricane veterans who have come to expect a cyclone every now and then across the Florida peninsula.
Mark Tyson, general manager of the Coral Ridge Yacht Club located on the Intracoastal Waterway, said virtually every one of the 57 boats tied up on its docks will ride out the storm exactly where they are.
“We’ve learned how to be prepared,” Tyson said. “Around the club, everything that can blow away is put away. Pots, plants, chairs and tables around the pool, our little sailboats — anything that can fly gets moved to a safe place. A roof is a roof. You can’t do much about that.”
Joe Verderber, a member of Coral Ridge, has a 92-foot yacht — Northern V’s — anchored at the club’s dock. He’s 82 and said he has been through several hurricanes. He and Judy, his wife of 61 years, will ride out the storm on their boat, as usual.
“Insurance requires that I put triple lines out and extra fenders, so that’s what we’ll do,” he said. “Anything like chairs, cushions, anything that can fly around, we’ll take them inside. There’s not much else you can do. And then you pray.”
Rozsa is a freelance journalist based in Florida. Shapiro reported from Fort Lauderdale; Reiley and Davenport reported from Washington.