McLEAN’S TOWN CAY, Bahamas (AP) — Hurricane Dorian struck the northern Bahamas as a catastrophic Category 5 storm Sunday, its record 185 mph winds ripping off roofs, overturning cars and tearing down power lines as hundreds hunkered down in schools, churches and shelters.
Dorian slammed into Elbow Cay in the Abaco Islands at 12:40 p.m., and then made a second landfall near Marsh Harbour on Great Abaco Island at 2 p.m., after authorities made last-minute pleas for those in low-lying areas to evacuate.
“It’s devastating,” said Joy Jibrilu, director general of the Bahamas’ Ministry of Tourism and Aviation. “There has been huge damage to property and infrastructure. Luckily, no loss of life reported.”
With its maximum sustained winds of 185 mph and gusts up to 220 mph, Dorian tied the record for the most powerful Atlantic hurricane ever to come ashore, equaling the Labor Day hurricane of 1935, before the storms were named.
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Millions from Florida to the Carolinas kept a wary eye on the slow-moving Dorian amid indications it would veer sharply northeastward after passing the Bahamas and track up the U.S. Southeast seaboard. But authorities warned that even if its core did not make U.S. landfall, the potent storm would likely hammer the coast with powerful winds and heavy surf.
The only recorded storm that was more powerful was Hurricane Allen in 1980, with 190 mph winds. That storm did not make landfall at the strength.
“Catastrophic conditions” were reported in the Abaco Islands, with a storm surge of 18-23 feet, and Dorian was expected to cross Grand Bahama later in the day “with all its fury,” the center said. The hurricane was moving to the west at 5 mph.
Silbert Mills, owner of the Bahamas Christian Network, said trees and power lines were torn down in The Abaco Islands.
“The winds are howling like we’ve never, ever experienced before,” said Mills, 59, who planned to ride out the hurricane with his family in the concrete home he built 41 years ago in central Abaco.
Over two or three days, the hurricane could dump as much as 4 feet of rain, in addition to the winds and storm surge, said private meteorologist Ryan Maue.
Harris, the government spokesman, said Dorian could affect 73,000 residents and 21,000 homes. Authorities closed airports for The Abaco Islands, Grand Bahama and Bimini, but Lynden Pindling International Airport in the capital of Nassau stayed open.
After the Bahamas, the slow-crawling storm was forecast to turn sharply and skirt toward the U.S. coast, staying just off Florida and Georgia on Tuesday and Wednesday and then buffeting South Carolina and North Carolina on Thursday.
The National Hurricane Center issued a hurricane watch for Florida’s East Coast from Deerfield Beach north to the Volusia and Brevard county line. The same area was put under a storm surge watch. Lake Okeechobee was under a tropical storm watch.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis warned the state’s densely populated Atlantic coast: “We’re not out of the woods yet.”
He suspended tolls on the Florida Turnpike and other roads, including Alligator Alley, from Fort Lauderdale to Naples, to keep traffic flowing for evacuees.
DeSantis noted some forecast models still bring Dorian close to or even onto the Florida peninsula.
“That could produce life-threatening storm surge and hurricane force winds,” DeSantis said. “That cone of uncertainty still includes a lot of areas on the east coast of Florida and even into central and north Florida, so we are staying prepared and remaining vigilant.”
Palm Beach County ordered a mandatory evacuation for the eastern half of the county as of 1 p.m. Sunday. That included mobile homes, substandard housing, low-lying areas prone to flooding and homes along the Intracoastal Waterway and on barrier islands.
For Florida, it could come down to a handful of miles between relative safety and potential devastation. On Tuesday and Wednesday, Dorian is forecast to be 40 to 50 miles off the Florida with hurricane-force wind speeds extending about 35 miles to the west.
President Donald Trump already declared a state of emergency and was briefed about what he called a “monstrous” storm.
“We don’t know where it’s going to hit but we have an idea, probably a little bit different than the original course,” Trump said. “But it can change its course again and it can go back more toward Florida.”