Landfall of the powerful core of Dorian remains possible. More likely, forecasters said late Monday, is a harrowing near miss, with Dorian expected to turn to the north and travel parallel to the coast while remaining offshore. Even so, the outer bands of Dorian could still deliver damaging winds of nearly 100 mph and produce a storm surge that would flood low-lying areas across a vast swath of the Eastern Seaboard.
The National Hurricane Center has repeatedly urged people not to focus too much on the exact track predicted for Dorian. Hurricanes are fickle, and this one could ignore the computer models and roll right onto Florida’s crowded, condominium-lined coast.
“It cannot be stressed enough that only a small deviation to the left of the NHC forecast could bring the core of the extremely dangerous hurricane onshore of the Florida east coast within the hurricane warning area,” the center said.
Dorian’s potential for havoc became clear Monday through videos posted online by residents of the Bahamas who are struggling to survive a storm more powerful than any in their historical record. Dorian generated sustained winds of 185 mph, and the only previous Atlantic hurricane as powerful at landfall was the unnamed 1935 Labor Day hurricane that struck the Florida Keys.
Dorian made landfall Sunday on three islands: Elbow Cay, Great Abaco and Grand Bahama. Forecasters warned that the storm could produce wind gusts up to 220 mph and a storm surge of 23 feet. The airport reportedly was inundated by five feet of water.
Even with information spotty because of the collapse of communications and the inability of first responders to move around, it was obvious Monday that the northern Bahamas suffered tremendous destruction. The storm knocked homes off their foundations and tore away roofs. Many people were trapped, with no rescue possible.
The misery and terror felt in the Bahamas were intensified by the sluggish nature of the storm. It hovered over Grand Bahama for about 20 hours. At 4 p.m. Monday, Dorian, with sustained winds of 145 mph, was moving across the island chain at just 1 mph, with its eyewall still over land, roughly 100 miles east of West Palm Beach.
The 8 p.m. Hurricane Center report said the storm had stalled and was “stationary” on the north side of Grand Bahama.
While Dorian is projected to lose some of that intensity in coming days, its anticipated path over water will keep it from losing too much of its punch, and it is expected to remain an exceedingly destructive hurricane.
“Hurricane Dorian has shown what it’s capable of. It’s absolutely battered the Bahamas,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said Monday. “If you’re ordered to evacuate, you need to do that. … Get out now while you have time.”
Hundreds of miles of coastal communities have been placed under mandatory evacuation orders along the projected track of the storm. In South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster (R) ordered mandatory evacuations of the state’s entire coast. Dare County, N.C., also is under an evacuation order, and Virginia declared a state of emergency.
In Florida, many residents have migrated inland to hotels or the homes of friends. Places normally teeming with activity and clogged with traffic became ghostly quiet on Labor Day. Few cars plied the interstates; people had hunkered down, knowing that when the wind picks up and reaches tropical storm intensity, it will get dangerous on the roads, especially on tall bridges spanning the Intracoastal Waterway.
Some people who decided to stay put in the evacuation zones changed their minds over the weekend when Dorian blew up into a Category 5 storm. It will still be a major hurricane if and when it makes its closest approach to the mainland. That could happen almost anywhere along the coast.
A Hurricane Center forecast late Monday afternoon noted that “the hurricane is not a point” and can deliver life-threatening mayhem far from its eye. The storm surge — the amount of water above normally dry land — is expected to be four to seven feet, with waves on top, ensuring widespread beach erosion and possible dune destruction.
The erosion will be worst in coastal Georgia and South Carolina because of the shape of the coastline, said Kara Dora, an oceanographer with the U.S. Geological Survey. “The water just doesn’t have anywhere to go as the storm is pushing that water ahead of it,” she said.
Millions of residents who have moved into homes behind, or sometimes on top of, the dunes of the Atlantic Seaboard have closely followed Dorian’s track for nearly a week — an exhausting experience. A modest wobble in the storm could mean the difference between a major disaster and a soggy, nerve-jangling hassle. Dread mingles with serenity, sometimes from the same person on different days, depending on the latest storm bulletin. The most dutiful news gatherers know the longitude and latitude of their homes.
Broward County Mayor Mark Bogen said Monday that the county was opening three bare-bones hurricane shelters “for anyone who just didn’t feel comfortable staying in their homes Monday night.”
Margaret Wilesmith of Palm Beach wrestled with the decision of whether to follow the evacuation order that was issued for the island Sunday afternoon. On Monday, she was in her home two blocks from the ocean, and perfectly content.
“On Friday, we were all worried. On Saturday night, I went to a hurricane party, and we left jubilant because of the forecast change. Sunday, back to worrying. It’s just been exhausting,” Wilesmith said. “I decided last night” — Sunday — “to leave, so I went to a friend’s across the bridge in West Palm Beach. But at 9:30, I thought, what am I doing here? Why not just go home? There’s nothing like sleeping in your own bed.”
Gail Cooney and her husband, John, also live on Palm Beach, but they decided to evacuate across the bridge to the Hilton in West Palm Beach.
“We wanted a place where our cars would be safe,” Gail Cooney said as she waited outside a pizza shop with the couple’s two spaniels. The back-and-forth warnings of disaster for Palm Beach have worn her out. “It hasn’t even come close, and I’m already over it. You prepare, and then you wait.”
College student Alex Gaddie, 19, and his grandmother were at a West Palm Beach Home Depot on Monday afternoon to buy a generator. They have different stress-management systems.
“Two years ago, they said Irma was going to hit the East Coast, but it hit the west coast instead,” Gaddie said. “So you just try to be ready, nothing else you can do.”
His grandmother, Edna Torres, has a different strategy: She worries.
“Panic, panic. I’m worrying, he’s calm,” Torres said. “I just don’t like what I’m seeing about this storm.”
Zulma Hollar and her husband were also at the Home Depot, even though they’ve been prepared for days.
“I’m just so tired of being worried,” Hollar said. “We’ve been through other storms, but never for so long, just wondering what the path would be.”
Natalie Ciokler and Sasha Gonzalez from Wellington were among the hundreds of sightseers who crowded the sidewalk near Midtown Beach on Palm Beach. A few surfers bobbed in rough waves. Some children had dug an impressive canal.
Most people were there taking selfies with the breaking waves behind them. By 5 p.m., the bridges to the island would be closed, and all nonresidents would have to leave.
Richard Ries, 91, director of the food pantry at Palms West Presbyterian Church in Loxahatchee, said he wasn’t concerned.
“The news has some people scared, and that’s too bad,” Ries said. “You can’t do anything about where a hurricane will land. It’s life. God knows what he’s doing.”
At the northern end of the county, tremendous waves slammed Coral Cove Park in Tequesta, exposing sea turtle eggs.
“The state needs this. It cleans out the trees, refills the water table,” said Hetal Patel, who comes to the reserve five times a week from his home in Tequesta. “It’s a beautiful thing, but as people have grown used to building and growing right near the ocean, you’re going to see more damage.”
Up the coast in Jensen Beach, Josh Rubinstein, 45, and Elizabeth Bell pulled their golf cart into the parking lot of Conchie Joe’s bar and grill. They live just across the road in a fifth-wheel trailer home and love to come to the Intracoastal Waterway to watch the waves roll in.
“It’s going to hit us, but it doesn’t matter. It’s God coming at you,” Rubinstein said, a Busch Light in one hand and a cigarette in the other. “This storm is actually beautiful as it is. It’s so well formed. It’s like a classic car going down the road, just beautiful.”
Far to the north, in Daytona Beach, one bar hosted pirate-themed bashes over the weekend, posting Saturday morning: “The Winds Have Shifted Party On.”
By Monday afternoon, the party was over and most businesses by the beach were deserted or boarded up.
Sue LeBruno and her daughter Terry stayed in their home near the beach despite an evacuation order.
“We stayed for the last two and everything we have is here,” LeBruno said, listing off a generator, food supply and new storm windows. “If it goes, we go with it.”
In Jacksonville Beach, Dave Swaney, 68, an avid surfer, said he’ll ride out the storm, having already stockpiled jugs of water, crackers, tuna fish and pork and beans.
“We may lose some dunes but that is about it,” he said, adding that the nonstop news coverage of Dorian has been tiresome. “You can get hurricane fatigue because they started warning us a week ago, and the coverage of this can get out of hand.”
Rozsa is a freelance journalist based in Florida. Sullivan reported from Jensen Beach, Nirappil from Daytona Beach and Achenbach from Washington. Tim Craig in Jacksonville Beach, Leonard Shapiro in Fort Lauderdale, Stephanie Hunt in Charleston and Jason Samenow and Andrew Freedman in Washington contributed to this report.