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 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 (295 kph) 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.
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 its 190 mph winds. That storm did not make landfall.
“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 (7 kph).
In the northern stretches of the archipelago, hotels closed, residents boarded up homes and officials hired boats to move people to bigger islands.
Video that Jibrilu and government spokesman Kevin Harris said was sent by Abaco residents showed homes missing parts of their roofs, downed power lines and smashed and overturned cars. One showed floodwaters rushing through the streets of an unidentified town at nearly the height of a car roof.
In some parts of Abaco, “you cannot tell the difference as to the beginning of the street versus where the ocean begins,” said Prime Minister Hubert Minnis.
According to the Nassau Guardian, he called it “probably the most sad and worst day of my life to address the Bahamian people.”
Earlier, Minnis had warned that anyone who did not evacuate was “in extreme danger and can expect a catastrophic consequence.”
The government opened 14 shelters across the Bahamas. Dozens ignored evacuation orders, officials said.
“The end could be fatal,” said Samuel Butler, the assistant police commissioner. “We ask you, we beg you, we plead with you to get to a place of safety.”
Bahamas radio station ZNS Bahamas reported a mother and child in Grand Bahama called to say they were sheltering in a closet and seeking help from police.
Silbert Mills, the 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.
Among those refusing to leave were 32 people in Sweetings Cay, a fishing town of a few hundred people about 5 feet (1.5 meters) above sea level, and a group that sought safety in Old Bahama Bay resort, which officials said was not safe.
Earlier Saturday, skiffs shuttled between outlying fishing villages and McLean’s Town, a settlement of a few dozen homes at the eastern end of Grand Bahama Island, about 150 miles (240 kilometers) from Florida’s Atlantic coast. Most came from Sweetings Cay.
“We’re not taking no chances,” said Margaret Bassett, a ferry boat driver for the Deep Water Cay resort. “They said evacuate, you have to evacuate.”
But Jack Pittard, a 76-year-old American who has visited the Bahamas for 40 years, decided to ride out the storm — his first hurricane — in The Abaco Islands.
He said he battened down his house to spend the storm in a nearby duplex. He noted the ocean is quite deep near where he was staying, and there is a cay that provides protection.
A short video from Pittard about 2:30 p.m. showed winds shaking his home and ripping off its siding.
“I’m not afraid of dying here,” said Pittard, who lives in Lexington, Kentucky.
Jeffrey Allen, who lives in Freeport on Grand Bahama, said he had learned after several storms that damage predictions sometimes don’t materialize, but he still takes precautions.
“It’s almost as if you wait with anticipation, hoping that it’s never as bad as they say it will be. However, you prepare for the worst nonetheless,” he said.
Over two or three days, the hurricane could dump as much as 4 feet (1 meter) 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.
The archipelago is no stranger to hurricanes. Homes are required to have metal reinforcements for roof beams to withstand winds into the upper limits of a Category 4 hurricane, and compliance is generally tight for those who can afford it. Risks are higher in poorer neighborhoods, with wooden homes in low-lying areas.
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 Florida with hurricane-force wind speeds extending about 35 miles to the west.
National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham urged residents not to bet on safety just because the specific forecast track has the storm just a bit offshore. Don’t focus on the track, he said, but the larger cone of possibility that includes landfall.
Complicating matters is that with every new forecast, “we keep nudging (Dorian’s track) a little bit to the left” which is closer to the Florida coast, Graham said.
Dorian is a powerful but small storm with hurricane-force winds Sunday only extending 29 miles to the west, but they are expected to grow a bit. That makes forecasting its path delicate and difficult.
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.”
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster declared a state of emergency, mobilizing state resources to prepare for potential storm effects. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said the state could see heavy rain, winds and floods.
The hurricane upended some Labor Day holiday weekend plans in the U.S.: Major airlines allowed travelers to change reservations without fees, big cruise lines rerouted their ships and Cumberland Island National Seashore off Georgia closed to visitors. Disney World and Orlando’s other resorts held off announcing any closings.