[Here is the newest protection on Hurricane Dorian as it strengthens to a Category 5.]
The storm is on a collision course with Florida.
Forecasters’ warnings grew increasingly dire on Thursday as they ratcheted up their expectations for Hurricane Dorian, saying it could hit the Florida coast as a Category 4 storm, with winds of at least 130 miles per hour.
The storm was about 200 miles northwest of San Juan, Puerto Rico, which had escaped much of the storm’s wrath, and was drawing strength from the warm waters of the Atlantic on Thursday.
Forecasters said the hurricane could make landfall on Monday morning, but models have shown divergent tracks for the storm’s path, so officials have warned Floridians from Miami to Jacksonville to prepare for a battering.
The National Hurricane Center warns that a Category 4 storm can cause “catastrophic damage,” peeling off roofs and uprooting trees and power lines.
Dorian would be the first Category 4 or higher hurricane to make landfall on Florida’s east coast since Andrew, a Category 5 storm, ripped through the Miami area in 1992. Andrew was blamed for 61 deaths and caused about $27 billion in damage.
Tropical-storm-force winds (at least 39 miles per hour) could begin blowing into Florida as soon as Saturday night. The center of the hurricane, now a Category 1 storm, is predicted to pass over the Bahamas on Sunday and near the eastern coast of Florida early on Monday.
Forecasters predict that the hurricane will drop 4 to 8 inches of rain in Florida, with up to a foot expected in some isolated areas. Another serious concern are life-threatening storm surges, when water levels rise dramatically and push far inland, flooding neighborhoods. About half of hurricane deaths can be attributed to storm surges.
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida extended his emergency declaration to all of the state’s 67 counties and warned everyone to prepare for the storm by gathering seven days’ worth of food, medicine and other supplies.
[Here are some tips on how to prepare for an evacuation order.]
“All Floridians really need to monitor Hurricane Dorian,” he said on Thursday morning, cautioning that many homes will lose power and residents have to be ready for flooding.
Newer residents should learn from Florida’s hardened hurricane survivors, he said. “Obviously, we’re always bringing new people into the state, so a lot of people are now experienced in hurricanes,” Mr. DeSantis said. He added: “Talk to your neighbors if you’ve never been through a hurricane here”
President Trump canceled a trip to Poland to monitor Dorian.
Saying that the hurricane looked “like it could be a very, very big one indeed,” the president said in the Rose Garden on Thursday that he was canceling a two-day trip to Poland over the Labor Day weekend to stay in the United States and monitor the storm.
Mr. Trump and the first lady, Melania Trump, had been scheduled to attend an event in Warsaw commemorating the 80th anniversary of the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany, which started World War II in Europe.
“Our highest priority is the safety and security of the people in the path of the hurricane,” Mr. Trump said, “and I will be rescheduling my trip to Poland in the near future.”
Cities across the state are filling sandbags and clearing drains.
With Dorian’s predicted intensity increasing, officials up and down Florida’s east coast warned residents to take precautions on Thursday.
In Daytona Beach, city crews cleared storm drains and reduced water levels in retention ponds. At Port Canaveral, boat captains were warned not to wait too long to enter safe water. And in Brevard County, east of Orlando, jail inmates filled sandbags for residents.
Closings and cancellations were already being announced. The University of Central Florida, in Orlando, said it would close Friday evening through at least Tuesday. At Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, a mandatory campus evacuation was set to take effect on Friday, with classes called off until further notice.
And a Florida State-Boise State college football game, scheduled for Saturday evening in Jacksonville, was moved west to Tallahassee and rescheduled for earlier in the day. And a Rolling Stones concert in the Miami area scheduled for Saturday was moved up to Friday because of the weather, the band said.
But the lack of clarity on the storm’s track complicated some planning. “It’s too early to make decisions about evacuations,” said Mayor Lenny Curry of Jacksonville. “We may very well find ourselves at some point in the next 24 or 48 hours calling for evacuations — depending on what this storm does.”
In Miami-Dade County, Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez said that county services were continuing as normal, but that residents should begin taking steps to ready their homes.
“If you have very difficult-to-assemble shutters,” Mr. Gimenez said, “maybe it’s time to start putting a couple of them up. Don’t put them all up yet.”
Around the state, motorists filled up vehicles and gas cans in anticipation of the hurricane.
At one gas station in Melbourne, Fla., a coastal city south of Orlando, the lines were bumper to bumper all day.
“I’ve never seen it this bad,” said Ashli Presnell, 30, who works at the Exxon gas station in Melbourne. “It’s been absolutely a madhouse.”
The station sold 700 gallons of gas in four hours on Thursday, as much as it doled out all day on Tuesday, Ms. Presnell said.
“You would think the world is ending right now,” she said.
About an hour south, at a Publix supermarket in Fort Pierce, near the center of the storm’s predicted path, customers were streaming in to stock up on Thursday.
“It looks like Thanksgiving,” said Elizabeth Eradiri, a member of the supermarket’s customer service staff.
“It didn’t look like this yesterday,” she said. “They’re buying everything you can think of — but mostly water.”
The storm is also scrambling travel plans for the holiday weekend.
People traveling to and through Florida over what is usually one of the busiest travel weekends of the year should expect delays and cancellations. Those who want to cancel trips should reach out to their airlines, cruises, hotels and tour operators.
As of Thursday morning, airlines were offering fee waivers for changes and cancellations for trips to Caribbean destinations, but few had included Florida waivers. However, most airlines are expected to update their waiver policies throughout the day on Thursday to include Florida airports.
Puerto Rico, riddled with anxiety from Maria, breathes a sigh of relief.
Dorian has been unpredictable, frustrating forecasters and paralyzing Puerto Ricans for days as they watched the storm track shift toward the island. At one point, it looked as if Dorian would cut an eerily parallel path to Maria’s destruction, albeit with far less intensity. Puerto Ricans lined up outside big-box stores to stock up on supplies and swamped a mental health hotline to get help with their anxiety.
“So many people are hysterical, and it’s because Maria was strong,” said Carmen Vargas, 54, a resident of rural Guaynabo, P.R., near San Juan, the capital, as she vividly recalled the 2017 storm. “Even though we know it’s not the same, the memories come back, and the wounds reopen.”
[Read more about how the storm rattled nerves in Puerto Rico.]
An important warning system was not even close to being ready in Puerto Rico.
Even before Hurricane Dorian grazed Puerto Rico on Wednesday, some of the island’s emergency preparation systems had already fallen short despite a scramble to ready residents for disaster.
Last year, federal and local emergency managers announced with fanfare that they had installed the first technologically advanced emergency alert siren downstream of the Guajataca Dam, the largest dam in western Puerto Rico.
At the time, television news crews clamored to record the new alert as the words “This is a test — do not take action” bellowed through the lush green region. The system was seen as a big improvement for the vulnerable area, where hundreds of people live beside a dam that retains the largest water source for the western part of the island. The dam’s spillway cracked during Hurricane Maria, sending emergency workers rushing door to door to get people out of their homes.
The solar-powered and satellite-activated system was to employ seven permanent sirens to announce dam-break warnings and mudslides for miles, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced in September 2018. But two years after Hurricane Maria forced the evacuation of the residents near the Guajataca Dam, the bulk of the $1.2 million in siren equipment is still sitting in storage on the island.
The reason: The Puerto Rican government still has not granted itself the permits required to install all the alerts.
FEMA, local emergency management officials, city leaders and even the company that FEMA paid to install the sirens cannot explain why the installation has taken so long. The delays have raised questions about Puerto Rico’s hurricane response plan, even as Dorian barreled by the island this week.
“It is a very vulnerable area. The time the people there have to flee if there is a break is very minimal, because they are very close to the dam,” said Vicente Valle, the public safety director in Isabela, where the dam is. “This is serious, very serious. Those sirens are vital.”
[Read more about alert system delays on Puerto Rico.]
A shift in the storm’s path took the Virgin Islands by surprise.
By Wednesday morning, the eye of the storm had veered toward the United States Virgin Islands, where Dorian’s drenching rain and whipping winds surprised residents who felt unprepared to face the Category 1 hurricane. By the afternoon, the storm had rolled into warm Atlantic waters.
Electricity went out throughout the islands, where nearly 3,000 homes were still in need of repair after the 2017 hurricanes, said Stacey Plaskett, the Virgin Islands’ delegate to Congress. Though officials in the Virgin Islands said damage was widespread, it was far less severe than after Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
Roy Watlington, a retired physics professor who lives on St. Thomas, said he had placed too much confidence in forecasts that showed Dorian taking a different path through the Caribbean. He raced to put up his shutters as the winds started building.
“I think I know meteorology, so I was a little arrogant and I thought for sure it couldn’t make such a drastic shift,” said Mr. Watlington, whose mango tree lost its fruit but who avoided serious damage.
Sharon Coldren, who lives in the village of Coral Bay, St. John, said residents weren’t prepared when the storm veered toward the island. Among those caught out were the owners of the 50-odd boats in the harbor at Coral Bay, some of which had people living on them.
“We’re still limping after the incredible damage of Irma, and so none of us felt confident that there weren’t boats in the harbor that would break loose in the storm,” she said.
In the end, St. John was spared a direct hit, and the center of the storm instead passed over neighboring St. Thomas. However, Ms. Coldren remained concerned for island residents who were still living in houses that have not been properly restored after Irma.
“We’ll have to help them,” she said.
Reporting was contributed by Patricia Mazzei, Frances Robles, Mitch Smith, Katie Rogers, Tariro Mzezewa and Freeman Rogers.
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