MIAMI • Hurricane Dorian has gained fearsome new muscle as an "extremely dangerous" Category 4 storm, bearing down on the northwestern Bahamas early yesterday, en route to Florida's east coast.
Millions of people in Florida, along with the state's Walt Disney World and US President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort, are in the potential cross hairs of the hurricane. Forecasters say Dorian, which had top sustained winds of 225kmh on Friday night, will threaten the Florida peninsula late tomorrow or early on Tuesday.
But the National Hurricane Centre in Miami cautioned that its meteorologists remained uncertain whether Dorian would make a devastating direct strike on the state's east coast or inflict a glancing blow. Some of the more reliable computer models predicted a late turn northwards that would have Dorian hug the Florida coast.
The faint hope of dodging Dorian's fury came on Friday, even as the storm ratcheted up from a menacing Category 3 hurricane to an even more dangerous Category 4. That raised fears that Dorian could become the most powerful hurricane to hit Florida's east coast in nearly 30 years.
National Hurricane Centre projections showed Dorian hitting roughly near Fort Pierce, some 113km north of Mar-a-Lago, then running along the coastline as it moved north. But forecasters cautioned that the storm's track remains still highly uncertain and even a small deviation could put Dorian offshore - or well inland.
Mr Trump has declared a state of emergency in Florida and authorised the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster-relief efforts in the state. He told reporters that "Mar-a-Lago can handle itself" and that he is more worried about Florida.
As Dorian closed in, Labour Day weekend plans were upended. Major airlines began allowing travellers to change their reservations without fees. The big cruise lines began rerouting their ships.
Still, with Dorian days away and its track uncertain, Disney World and other major resorts, which are in Dorian's forecast path, held off announcing any closures. The Florida authorities ordered no immediate mass evacuations.
"Sometimes if you evacuate too soon, you may evacuate into the path of the storm if it changes," Governor of Florida Ron DeSantis said.
But some counties announced mandatory evacuations ahead of time on Friday. Brevard County and Martin County officials announced that residents of barrier islands, mobile homes and low-lying areas would be under a mandatory evacuation order beginning this morning. The Brevard County order includes the Kennedy Space Centre.
Indian River County officials said they will recommend that residents of its barrier island voluntarily evacuate once hurricane warnings are issued.
Homeowners and businesses rushed to cover their windows with plywood. Supermarkets ran out of bottled water and long queues formed at petrol stations, with some fuel shortages reported.
WAIT, WATCH, ACT
Sometimes if you evacuate too soon, you may evacuate into the path of the storm if it changes.
GOVERNOR OF FLORIDA RON DESANTIS, on why the Florida authorities have not ordered immediate mass evacuations.
Early yesterday, Dorian was centred 755km east of West Palm Beach. It was moving north-west at 17kmh. Forecasters warned that its slow movement means Florida could face a prolonged wallop of wind, storm surge and torrential rain. Coastal areas of the south-eastern United States could get 15cm to 30cm of rain, with 46cm in some places, triggering life-threatening flash floods, the hurricane centre said.
Dorian is expected to hit the north-western part of the Bahamas today, with the potential for life-threatening storm surges that could raise water levels 5m above normal.