An already dangerous Hurricane Dorian has intensified yet again as it closes in on the northern Bahamas, threatening to batter islands with Category 5-strength winds, pounding waves and torrential rain.
The National Hurricane Centre in Miami said Dorian’s maximum sustained winds have increased to 180mph, up from 175mph. It is moving west at 7mph.
“Devastating hurricane conditions” are expected in the Abaco Islands early on Sunday and across Grand Bahama island later in the day, the centre said.
NEW: #Dorian is now a category 5 #hurricane with 160 mph sustained winds. The eyewall of this catastrophic hurricane is about to hit the Abaco Islands with devastating winds. Next advisory: https://t.co/tW4KeFW0gB pic.twitter.com/oFspgN0XbT— National Hurricane Center (@NHC_Atlantic) September 1, 2019
Millions from Florida to the Carolinas kept a wary eye on Dorian, meanwhile, amid indications it would veer sharply north-eastward after passing the Bahamas and track up the US south east seaboard.
But authorities warned even if its core did not make US landfall and stayed offshore, the potent storm was likely to hammer US coastal areas with powerful winds and heavy surf.
In the northern stretches of the Bahamas archipelago, hotels closed, residents boarded up homes and officials hired boats to move people from low-lying areas to bigger islands as Dorian approached.
Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis warned that Dorian is a “dangerous storm” and said any “who do not evacuate are placing themselves in extreme danger and can expect a catastrophic consequence”.
Small skiffs shuttled between outlying fishing communities and McLean’s Town, a settlement of a few dozen homes at the eastern end of Grand Bahama island, about 150 miles from Florida’s Atlantic coast.
Most people came from Sweeting Cay, a fishing town of a few hundred people about 5ft above sea level.
“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.”
Over two or three days, the slow-moving hurricane could dump as much as 4ft of rain, unleash devastating winds and whip up a dangerous storm surge, said private meteorologist Ryan Maue, seconding some of the most reliable computer models.
Government spokesman Kevin Harris said Dorian was expected to impact some 73,000 residents and 21,000 homes.
Authorities closed airports for the Abaco Islands, Grand Bahama and Bimini, but Lynden Pindling International Airport at the capital of Nassau remained open.
Jeffrey Allen, who lives in Freeport on Grand Bahama, said he had learned after several storms that sometimes predictions of damage do not materialise, 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.
On average, the Bahamas archipelago gets a direct hit from a hurricane every four years, officials said.
Construction codes require homes 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 residents who can afford it.
Risks are higher in poorer communities, which typically have wooden homes and are generally in lower-lying areas.
The slow-crawling storm was predicted to take until Monday afternoon to pass over the Bahamas, and then turn sharply and skirt up the US coast, staying just off Florida and Georgia on Tuesday and Wednesday and then buffeting South Carolina and North Carolina on Thursday.
Florida governor Ron DeSantis warned residents along the state’s densely populated Atlantic coast: “We’re not out of the woods yet.”
He noted some forecast models still bring Dorian close to or even on to the Florida peninsula.
“That could produce life-threatening storm surge and hurricane force winds,” Mr 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.”
South Carolina governor Henry McMaster declared a state of emergency, mobilising state resources to prepare for potential storm effects.
President Donald Trump has already declared a state of emergency and was briefed late on Saturday about the storm.
The hurricane upended some Labour Day holiday weekend plans in the US.
Major airlines allowed travellers to change their 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.