Category 4 Hurricane Dorian parked itself over the northwestern Bahamas on Sunday night, Sept. 1, and through much of Monday, Sept. 2, unleashing a devastating storm surge, destructive winds and blinding rain. With Dorian perched perilously close to the Florida peninsula, Monday into Monday night is the critical time that is likely to determine whether the state is dealt a powerful blow or a less intense scrape.
Tens of miles and subtle storm wobbles could make the difference between the two scenarios.
The storm has come to a standstill over Grand Bahama Island. If it soon starts to turn north, Florida would be spared Dorian's full fury. But if Dorian lumbers just a little more to the west, more serious storm effects would pummel parts of the coastline.
The National Hurricane Center has issued hurricane, storm surge, and tropical storm watches and warnings from the Atlantic coast of Florida northward into South Carolina.
"Although the center of Dorian is forecast to move near, but parallel to, the Florida east coast, only a small deviation of the track toward the west would bring the core of the hurricane onshore," the National Hurricane Center wrote in its 5 p.m. EDT bulletin.
Hurricane and storm surge warnings are in effect for large areas along Florida's east coast. Storm surge refers to the storm-driven rise in ocean water above normally dry land.
"The threat of damaging winds and life-threatening storm surge remains high," the National Weather Service office in Melbourne, Florida, wrote. "There will be considerable impacts and damage to coastal areas, with at least some effects felt inland as well!"
Serious storm effects are likely in coastal Georgia and the Carolinas in the middle and latter half of the week as Dorian picks up speed and heads north, but here, too, the risks are heavily dependent on the details of the storm track.
A hurricane landfall in the Carolinas, especially North Carolina, is a distinct possibility by late Thursday.
As of 8 p.m. EDT on Monday, the storm was 25 miles northeast of Freeport on Grand Bahama Island and stalled. The storm's peak sustained winds were 140 mph, making it a Category 4 storm. Dorian has maintained Category 4 and now Category 5 intensity since Saturday, an unusually long period.
Radar from South Florida showed Dorian's outermost rain bands pivoting inland producing occasional gusty showers. At about 3 p.m., Juno Beach pier clocked a sustained wind of 40 mph (tropical-storm force) and gust of 56 mph; and the Weather Service in Miami warned that showers could produce gusts of up to 45 mph into the evening.
Hurricane-force winds extend outward up to 45 miles from the center and tropical-storm-force winds extend outward up to 140 miles. The latest forecast from the Hurricane Center calls for Dorian to remain a Category 4 storm until Monday night before slowly weakening, but remaining a formidable hurricane, as it makes its closest pass to Florida (around a Category 3 strength) and northward to the Carolinas (around a Category 2).
"It is anticipated that the system will remain a dangerous major hurricane for the next several days," the Hurricane Center wrote.
While Florida and areas farther north await effects from the monster storm, a "catastrophic" scenario has unfolded in the northwestern Bahamas, where the storm's eyewall, the ring of destructive winds around the center, struck Sunday and then stalled until late Monday afternoon. In the process, three islands endured direct hits Sunday: Elbow Cay, Great Abaco and Grand Bahama Island.
Dorian hardly budged over Grand Bahama Island for 20 hours spanning Sunday night and Monday evening as the National Hurricane Center warned of wind gusts between 170 to 220 mph and a storm surge up to 23 feet. The National Hurricane Center described a "life-threatening situation" in Great Abaco on Sunday and on both Sunday night and on Monday on Grand Bahama Island. It said the wind and storm surge hazards would cause "extreme destruction."
The eyewall showed signs of lifting north of Grand Bahama by Monday evening but continued to lash the island's northern coast.
The extended nature of the direct hit has meant that these areas were hit with extreme winds and storm surge flooding during multiple high tides, tearing infrastructure apart and subjecting anyone who did not evacuate before the storm to a truly terrifying ordeal.
While the worst of the storm has lifted north of Grand Bahama Island, pounding rain (totaling up to 30 inches), damaging winds and the storm surge may not entirely ease until the second half of Tuesday in the region.
This is a storm that could reshape the northwestern Bahamas, particularly Great Abaco and Grand Bahama, for decades.
The hurricane warnings posted in Florida are focused on the period from Monday night through early Wednesday. Tropical-storm-force winds began Monday afternoon in coastal South Florida and is forecast to spread north on Tuesday. These winds are likely to continue into Wednesday, perhaps reaching hurricane-force strength late Tuesday or Wednesday depending on how close to the coast Dorian tracks.
Some computer models show the center of Dorian coming closest to the northern half of Florida's east coast Tuesday night into Wednesday, when conditions may become most hazardous.
The latest storm surge forecast for Florida shows that if the peak surge occurs at the time of high tide, the area from Lantana (just south of West Palm Beach) to the mouth of the St. Mary's River (north of Amelia Island) could see four to seven feet of water above ground, while the region from Deerfield Beach to Lantana could experience two to four feet.
"The threat for life-threatening storm surge also remains high, and severe erosion of the beaches and dune lines is a near certainty! The combination of surge and high astronomical tides will cause severe runup of waves and water, resulting in inundation of many coastal locations," the Weather Service office in Melbourne wrote.
On top of that, about two to four inches of rain is projected to fall.
Because the storm is predicted to be a slow mover, effects from wind, rain and storm surge could be prolonged, lingering through the middle of next week.
The forecast is highly sensitive to the storm track, and subtle shifts to the east or west would result in less or more severe wind, surge and rain.
Conditions are expected to deteriorate by Tuesday in coastal Georgia, by Wednesday in South Carolina and by Thursday in North Carolina. But just how much is uncertain. Where and whether Dorian makes landfall will depend on the exact trajectory of its turn relative to the coast as it turns north and then starts to bend northeastward.
Scenarios involving a direct hit, a scrape and a graze are possible based on available forecasts.
A hurricane watch was issued Monday for coastal Georgia and the South Carolina coast as far north as South Santee Island (which is just south of Myrtle Beach).
"Life-threatening storm surge and dangerous hurricane-force winds are expected along portions of . . . the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina, regardless of the exact track of Dorian's center," the National Hurricane Center wrote. "Water levels could begin to rise well in advance of the arrival of strong winds. "
The National Hurricane Center projects a storm surge of four to seven feet in coastal Georgia north to the South Santee River in South Carolina.
While specific projections are not yet available farther north, a direct hit is perhaps most likely in North Carolina because its coast sticks out into the ocean farthest east.
"The risk of life-threatening storm surge and hurricane-force winds continues to increase along the coast North Carolina," the Hurricane Center wrote. "Residents in these areas should follow advice given by local emergency officials."
Locations even farther north from Virginia Beach to the Delmarva and even up to Cape Cod could get brushed by the storm Friday and Saturday. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, declared a state of emergency ahead of the storm.
Most computer model forecasts the center of Dorian just to the east of the Florida coast rather than showing the eye of the storm ashore.
However, there are still some outliers that bring the eye onshore or right to the coastline, particularly in the northern half of the state.
Farther north, from Georgia to the Carolinas, the margin between a landfall and offshore track is also razor thin. However, of all the locations between Florida and the Mid-Atlantic coast, models suggest that the North Carolina coast between Wilmington and the Outer Banks may be most prone to a hurricane landfall on Thursday.
Dorian is tied for the second-strongest storm (as judged by its maximum sustained winds) ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean, behind Hurricane Allen of 1980, and, after striking the northern Bahamas, tied with the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane for the title of the strongest Atlantic hurricane at landfall.
It is only the second Category 5 hurricane to make landfall in the Bahamas since 1983, according to Phil Klotzbach of Colorado State University. The only other is Hurricane Andrew in 1992. The international hurricane database goes back continuously only to 1983.
The storm's peak sustained winds rank as the strongest so far north in the Atlantic Ocean east of Florida on record. Its pressure, which bottomed out at 910 millibars, is significantly lower than Hurricane Andrew's when it made landfall in South Florida in 1992 (the lower the pressure, the stronger the storm).
With Dorian attaining Category 5 strength, this is the first time since the start of the satellite era (in the 1960s) that Category 5 storms have developed in the tropical Atlantic for four straight years, according to Capital Weather Gang tropical weather expert Brian McNoldy.
The unusual strength of Dorian and the rate at which it developed is consistent with the expectation of more intense hurricanes in a warming world. Some studies have shown increases in hurricane rapid intensification, and modeling studies project an uptick in the frequency of Category 4 and 5 storms.
- - -
This article was written by Jason Samenow and Andrew Freeman, reporters for The Washington Post.