WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (CN) – Packing winds of more than 150 mph, Hurricane Dorian grew fiercer early Saturday as coastal populations from Florida to North Carolina writhe with each change in the storm’s forecast track.
The storm strengthened over warm Atlantic waters, while its expected track shifted east to the relief of south Florida residents, who were fearing a direct hit on Labor Day. The storm – nearly a Category 5 hurricane – still can cause severe flooding in the Sunshine State beginning Monday even if the eye wall does not come ashore, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Many coastal areas of eastern Florida areas have already been inundated with rain in August, which increases the risk of flooding.
“Life-threatening storm surge and dangerous hurricane-force winds are still possible along portions of the Florida east coast by the early to middle part of next week, but since Dorian is forecast to slow down and turn northward near or just offshore of the coast, it is too soon to determine when or where the highest surge and winds could occur,” the Center wrote.
“The risk of strong winds and dangerous storm surge is increasing along the coasts of Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina during the middle of next week.”
Dorian is forecast to move over more warm water this weekend — which is “like high octane fuel for hurricanes,” NHS forecaster Lixion Avila wrote. How far offshore the storm’s center will stay remains uncertain, but residents as far north as Virginia are being advised by the National Weather Service to remain vigilant and monitor the forecast track.
On Thursday, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency for all of the state’s 67 counties ahead of the storm.
“All residents, especially those along the east coast, need to be prepared for possible impacts,” he said after the announcement. “As it increases strength, this storm has the potential to severely damage homes, businesses and buildings, which is why all Floridians should remain vigilant. Do not wait until it is too late to make a plan.”
At the governor’s urging, President Donald Trump also declared a state of emergency for the state on Friday, which will allow federal resources to begin flowing to emergency services.
In a tweet, Trump called the hurricane “an absolute monster.”
Trump’s Mar-A-Lago resort is located in Palm Beach. The resort, which has hosted world leaders over Trump’s presidency, is currently closed for the summer.
So far, no counties have ordered evacuations, because Hurricane Dorian’s path is still too vague. During past storms, residents have evacuated only to find themselves in the storm’s path again.
If Hurricane Dorian continues on its projected path, the storm could bring more than a foot of rain to South Florida, including over Lake Okeechobee, the state’s largest body of water.
The decades-old Herbert Hoover Dike, made up of sand and rock, encloses the lake to control flooding. Although the dike has received hundreds of millions of dollars for repairs in recent years, a severe hurricane could cause lethal flooding in the surrounding communities.
In a conference call with reporters, Col. Andrew Kelly, commander of the Corps’ Jacksonville District, said teams of engineers inspected the 143-mile dike earlier this week and found no issues.
“In general, the dike is in a better condition than the last hurricane,” Kelly said.
He said the northeastern side of the dike has the most risk and localized flooding is possible if the system hits the area as a Category 4 hurricane.
Drew Bartlett, executive director of the South Florida Water Management District, said his agency is closely monitoring the canals and levees in other parts of South Florida to mitigate flooding.
“We have 2,000 miles of canals and levees we are looking at, monitoring, preparing for the arrival of this rainfall,” he said. “How we are doing that is drawing our canals down … so when that 13 inches of rain hits, it can be absorbed in the capacity of these canals as we are moving it out to protect from flooding.”
In a morning press conference, DeSantis said the hurricane is potentially a multi-day event that is likely to “churn slowly across the state.”
“We urge all Floridians to have seven days’ worth of food, medicine and water,” DeSantis said.
Seasoned Sunshine State residents know the consequences of being stuck without supplies when a strong hurricane hits. After Hurricane Irma raked through the entirety of the state in 2017, most Florida households lost power. Some areas were without electricity for days.
In anticipation of widespread power outages, the Florida Municipal Electric Association activated its mutual aid network and is already calling in more than 1,000 lineworkers from other states.
“Public power communities pull together in times of need and we are so thankful to have the support of communities not just in our own state, but from across the country,” said Amy Zubaly, executive director of the Florida Municipal Electric Association. “With their help, we will be able to work together to restore power quickly and safely to as many people as possible as we have during previous years’ storms.”
Duke Energy, one of the largest utilities in the state, is also lining up crews to respond to power outages and downed trees.
“We join state officials in asking everyone to take this storm seriously and prepare now,” said Duke Energy storm director Jason Cutliffe. “We also ask our customers for their patience. With a Category 4 hurricane, power may take several days to restore.”
Health officials are making site visits and phone calls to nursing homes where the status of backup generators is uncertain in state records.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, Florida passed a law requiring nursing homes to have backup generators capable of powering their air conditioning units. The measure was enacted in response to a tragedy in which at least 12 patients suffered fatal medical complications from heat exposure inside the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, where power to the air conditioning system was knocked out by the storm.
The governor said FEMA is working with Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia to waive truck weighing requirements and facilitate fuel transport. Law enforcement in Florida will be escorting fuel trucks when needed, the governor said.
According to GasBuddy.com, about 60 percent of gas stations in West Palm Beach and Miami did not have fuel. Even across the state in the Tampa Bay area, out of the storm’s projected path, nearly 40 percent of stations ran out of gas.
Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody activated the state’s price gouging hotline on Friday.
“You should be taking steps now to ensure you are prepared for the storm and the possibility of days without electricity,” she said. “I have extended Florida’s Price Gouging Hotline to all 67 counties in an effort to prevent gouging, so Floridians can afford essential items now.”
Supermarkets and grocery stores across the state are already experiencing shortages of water. At the country’s busiest Walmart in Pinellas County, shoppers stripped the shelves of all water by noon. A manager said the store was not imposing limits on purchases, but that could change in the future.
The state is coordinating with Walmart and other grocery stores to make sure water is restocked.
In response to the water shortages, breweries across the state are letting residents fill up their containers with fresh water. Brian Pitts, manager of Funky Buddha Brewery near Ft. Lauderdale, said a trickle of people have come in for water, but far more want the beer.
“People are looking to take home some of the beer, just so they can get stocked up for the few days they may be inside,” he said.
The brewery plans to remain open through the holiday weekend.
Florida had a lull of more than a decade between 2005 and 2016 with no major hurricane making landfall.
The past few years have not been so kind. Hurricane Irma caused widespread damage, wreaking havoc in the Florida Keys as a category 4 storm before reaching north Florida, where it caused historic flooding along the St. Johns River.
Last year, Hurricane Michael devastated Florida’s panhandle, bringing sustained winds of 160 mph. It was the first category 5 hurricane to hit the United States since Hurricane Andrew in 1992.