Hurricane Dorian could be Category 4, hit Florida on Labor Day weekend
Hurricane Dorian continued to ramp up early Friday, reaching Category 2 strength on a path toward the Florida coast paved with more storm fuel — warm water, no land and very little in the atmosphere to weaken it.
It’s a recipe for a dangerous major hurricane and the National Hurricane Center predicts the system could come in as a Category 4, bringing winds topping 130 miles per hour and damaging surge and coastal flooding to the Sunshine State sometime early Tuesday.
The key question for millions in Florida — where will it come ashore? — remained unanswered. But the latest model runs and official track continued to subtly shift, raising the risk for South Florida, the state’s most populated region. Those models potentially could change again in coming days but the trend was concerning.
“A lot will depend on when it makes the turn and where,” said Robert Molleda, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Miami.
A wall of high pressure building by Bermuda is expected to force Dorian to turn west sometime Friday, but it’s unclear how strong the ridge of air is and how hard it will push the hurricane. A quicker west turn (forced by a stronger ridge) could mean a more southern landfall. A slower turn, a more northern landing.
At 5 a.m. Friday, the hurricane center said Dorian’s maximum sustained winds had reached 105 mph, with the storm traveling at 12 mph. A hurricane watch as been issued for the northwestern Bahamas.
Forecasters also nudged the center-line of the track another 30 miles south near Vero Beach, with landfall Monday afternoon. But the computer models analyzing the surrounding weather systems that will steer Dorian remained scattered, and the entire state remained in the cone of uncertainty. The hurricane center also noted that the typical forecast error four days out was 155 miles. In other words, it’s still to early to pinpoint likely landfall.
The advisory acknowledged that array of sophisticated models that guide forecasters were struggling with sorting out the shifting atmospheric steering currents that will dictate Dorian’s path: “As you can imagine, with so many complex variables in play, it is no wonder the models have been having a difficult time nailing down the path of the hurricane.”
The latest forecast also showed Dorian could slow down dramatically as it nears land, which raises the possibility the storm could sit off the coast and dump 5 to 10 inches of rain. That drenching rain, coupled with storm surge and an already elevated tide, could spell severe flooding for wherever Dorian comes ashore.
“The biggest variable when it comes to rainfall amounts in a tropical system is the forward motion of the storm. A slow moving storm would certainly be a big concern for its ability to create copious amounts of rain and cause flooding,” Molleda said. “It’s still a big concern.”
On Thursday afternoon, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency in all 67 counties.
“All residents, especially those along the east coast, need to be prepared for possible impacts,” DeSantis said in a statement, urging Floridians to have seven days of supplies on hand. “As it increases strength, this storm has the potential to severely damage homes, businesses and buildings, which is why all Floridians should remain vigilant. Do not wait until it is too late to make a plan.”
DeSantis assured residents he has strong support from the White House, despite the president’s decision to transfer $155 million of FEMA funds toward the southwest border as Dorian approaches.
“He assured me that the federal government would be with us every step of the way,” DeSantis said. “They’ll be supporting us in any way that they can.”
At an event in the White House Rose Garden, President Donald Trump said he would postpone travel to Poland this weekend and remain in Washington to manage the federal response. He was scheduled to depart for Warsaw on Saturday to participate in ceremonies marking the 80th anniversary of the start of World War II.
“The storm looks like it could be a very, very big one indeed,” he said at the event alongside Vice President Mike Pence, who will travel in his place. “Our highest priority is the safety and security of the people.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is waiting for Hurricane Dorian’s forecast to narrow before determining where to deploy resources across Florida.
Jeff Byard, FEMA associate administrator for the Office of Response and Recovery, said the agency is sending personnel to Tallahassee and pre-positioning assets like water and meals across the state.
“It’s a phased approach,” Byard said. “We work for the governor in these situations but obviously we bring a lot of firepower.”
Byard was unable to estimate how many FEMA employees are currently in Florida, though he did say some personnel originally deployed to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are en route to Florida after Dorian largely spared the Caribbean.
Byard said he spoke with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Thursday about Lake Okeechobee’s water levels and the massive lake’s aging dike . He said the Corps “feel like they’re in good shape with the amount of rain that could fall.”
Byard also said the agency is analyzing Dorian’s potential impacts and developing contingency plans for key pieces of infrastructure like the St. Lucie nuclear power plant, which lies near the center of the storm’s current projected path.
He did note that Dorian’s current path gives FEMA and other agencies more time to prepare than they had for Hurricane Michael, which strengthened rapidly into a Category 5 Hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico before making landfall on the Florida Panhandle last year.
“You’ve got a very strong storm, it’s not going to interact with land until it hits Florida and there’s very warm water,” Byard said. “I don’t see this storm weakening as it moves along.”
Broward County Mayor Mark Bogen held a press conference Thursday to implore residents to start preparing.
“While we do not know exactly where Hurricane Dorian is going to hit, we do know something from 2017 and that has to do with Hurricane Irma,” Bogen said. “Irma was projected to go straight west up the Florida coast and at last minute it deviated through Orlando to Jacksonville.”
Bogen said the lesson learned is that everyone needs to be prepared.
He told residents to focus on five things ahead of the storm: Expect a power outage and plan accordingly; know where shelters are but try to come up with an alternative; sign up for the county’s alert system; shutter up as soon as possible; and while there are no evacuations yet, Bogen said have a plan in place.
Heads from the Broward Sheriff’s Office, Broward County Schools, Broward County Sheriff Fire Rescue and the Emergency Operations Center also gave updates.
Broward County Sheriff Gregory Tony said all of the county’s agencies have been coordinating efforts and making sure everything is in place for the storm.
“Rest assured we are way ahead of things in terms of preparedness,” he said.
The U.S. Virgin Islands were cleaning up on Thursday after Dorian became a Category 1 hurricane over the U.S. territory on Wednesday.
The Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority said it was still working to restore electricity to some areas of St. Thomas and St. John. And USVI Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. lifted a curfew at 8 a.m. Thursday, saying the roads have been cleared of all debris.
In Puerto Rico life was also getting back to normal after Dorian — defying early expectations — largely avoided the big island.
The only known fatality in Puerto Rico due to the storm came when an 80-year-old man fell off his roof in Bayamón, clearing out his gutters in preparation for Dorian.
Miami Herald Staff Writers Jim Wyss, Alex Daugherty and Carli Teproff contributed to this story. McClatchy DC Staff Writer Michael Wilner also contributed.