Storm Warnings Put Florida on High Alert

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.

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.

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.”

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.”

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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