Hurricane Dorian to be ‘a powerful hurricane’ as it approaches Florida, forecasters say

Hurricane Dorian strengthened Wednesday night after passing through Puerto Rico, according to the National Hurricane Center. Forecasters warned of an increased risk of a dangerous storm surge and higher winds as the storm headed to Florida’s east coast during the holiday weekend.

The hurricane was about 150 miles north of San Juan as of Thursday’s 5 a.m. updated forecast, which showed Dorian strengthened to maximum sustained winds of 85 miles per hour, up from 80 on Wednesday evening. The new update tilted the storm’s potential landfall slightly more south along the Florida coastline.

“All indications are that by this Labor Day weekend, a powerful hurricane will be near or over the Florida peninsula,” NHC forecasters wrote.

Forecasters warned that the storm would likely strengthen as it moves across the Bahamas later this week and heads toward Florida’s east coast by the weekend. They could not pinpoint the specific areas.

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As Hurricane Dorian nears Florida’s Atlantic coast, Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency Wednesday afternoon for 26 counties in the storm’s path, spanning from Nassau to Monroe counties. The order also extends inland to counties like Orange County. The state Emergency Operations Center is also activating to Level 2, he announced, bringing in more emergency management staff to coordinate a response to the storm.

“It’s important for Floridians on the East Coast to monitor this storm closely,” DeSantis said in a statement, urging Floridians to have seven days of supplies on hand. “I will continue to monitor Hurricane Dorian closely with emergency management officials. The state stands ready to support all counties along the coast as they prepare.”

Declaring a state of emergency gives state agencies more flexibility to send help to affected counties and local authorities, from letting the Department of Transportation waive tolls, reverse traffic flow for evacuations or close roads, to allowing buildings and public schools to be made available as shelters.

Nearly all of the intensity models show Dorian becoming a stronger hurricane in the next couple of days, when it passes near or to the east of the Turks and Caicos islands and the Bahamas by Friday and Saturday, according to the advisory. Forecasters warn the storm could grow in size now that it’s cleared Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

By the time Dorian nears Florida’s east coast, it could be a Category 3 hurricane, with maximum sustained winds at 115 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center. Florida could start seeing tropical storm force winds Saturday night.

Forecasters say the “threat of tropical storm or hurricane conditions” in the northwestern Bahamas and along portions of the Florida east coast have increased, but it’s still too early to know exactly how — or where — Florida will be affected.

“By Friday, a high pressure region is forecast to build to the north of the system,” said NHC forecaster Daniel Brown. “It’ll be critical as to how strong that ridge is as to how quickly it turns back to the north-northwest.”

If that ridge is stronger, it could push Dorian west faster, pointing it more toward South Florida. A weaker ridge would see a more northern landfall.

But regardless of landfall location, the storm could bring heavy rain up and down the state over the weekend. That’s just in time for the second King Tide of the season, a higher than usual high tide that usually brings intense flooding to low-lying regions.

“High tides are beginning to go up today and they continue really through the weekend into Sunday. Monday they stay elevated,” said NWS meteorologist Larry Kelly. “They’re not running too above normal at this time, but we’re continuing to monitor them. The impact from Dorian depends on the track.”

The National Weather Service advised this week that Florida could see drenching rain and maybe even flooding from Dorian later this week and into early next week. NHC forecasters expect four to eight inches of rain, with isolated areas seeing up to 10 inches of rain.

The biggest threat from Dorian remains the uncertainty over where it will land, said state emergency management director Jared Moskowitz: “The intensity seems pretty baked in. The only thing consistent about the track is its inconsistency.”

State officials started moving hundreds of thousands of bottles of water to counties in the storm’s path Tuesday, Moskowitz said, and emergency management leaders are coordinating where to send equipment in the next few days ahead of the response and recovery process.

“You don’t want to start moving equipment in case that’s exactly where the storm is,” he added. They are aiming to stage equipment and supplies outside the possible affected zones, but close enough to quickly move in after the storm passes.

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Moskowitz, a former state representative from Broward County, said state officials are also eyeing routes for evacuations and bringing in supplies as the likely major hurricane nears Florida’s east coast. Before Hurricane Irma, widespread evacuation orders in South Florida and the storm’s projected sweeping path caused chaotic traffic jams that stretched for hours along Florida’s major highways and other arteries.

Moskowitz said Dorian’s track poses different threats, but that clearing roads for evacuees and supply deliveries remains a top focus. He said he is putting in requests to neighboring states to waive weight restrictions and tolls to ease gas delivery to affected counties.

Evacuation orders are made at a local level, as are shelter openings, he noted. “These are the things that counties ... will be coordinating,” he said. “We don’t want millions of people on the road that don’t have to be on the road.”

State officials are also still eyeing possible impacts to the Hurricane Michael-struck Panhandle, which is still recovering from last year’s Category 5 storm. Dorian’s track remains unclear, though some forecasters’ models suggest it might move into the Gulf of Mexico after a likely Atlantic coast landfall. “We’re first preparing for an east coast landfall,” Moskowitz said, adding he was “extremely sensitive and in tune” with the Panhandle’s concerns. “If this comes into the Panhandle, this is going to pose a lot of challenges.”

The state emergency operations center is expected to begin operating at the highest activation level Friday before the storm arrives.

In Miami-Dade, the county called in sanitation crews to accelerate the clearing of curbside debris from suburban streets.

Those crews typically have Wednesdays off, but the county opted to put them on the clock ahead of Dorian and provide an extra day of collecting bulky waste like furniture and appliances that residents take to the curb on a regular basis.

The pickups, available to residents who pay Miami-Dade for trash service, are scheduled throughout the week and Miami-Dade is trying to get ahead of the schedule before a storm arrives. Solid Waste spokesman Frank Calderon said the county also will stop accepting bulky-waste requests if Dorian remains a threat for Miami-Dade.

“Now is not the best time to put things out,” Calderon said.

At a County Hall press conference early in the afternoon, Mayor Carlos Gimenez said it was too soon for residents to do much but get ready.

“Make sure your evacuation plans are in place,” Gimenez said. He emphasized county shelters that open ahead of a hurricane should be considered destinations of last resort.

“It’s a good time now to prepare,” Gimenez said, ticking through the baseline storm advice to stock three days worth of food and water and be ready with an evacuation plan. “If not for Dorian, then for any other storm.”

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So far Miami International Airport has only experienced one Dorian-related flight cancellation: American Airlines’ 10:52 a.m. flight to St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, Wednesday and the corresponding return flight previously scheduled to arrive at MIA Wednesday evening at 5:40 p.m.

Royal Caribbean International announced Wednesday that it is closing its private island in the Bahamas, Coco Cay, ahead of Dorian’s arrival. The company expects the island to reopen on Sept. 4.

“Our CocoCay Team is made up of over 400 Bahamian locals on the island and it’s important that they evacuate to care for their families and secure their homes, as soon as possible,” the company said in a statement. Passengers who purchased tickets to attractions at the island will be refunded.

Trips on six of Royal Caribbean’s upcoming trips will likely be affected by itinerary changes: Empress of the Seas, Aug. 24; Symphony of the Seas, Aug. 24; Mariner of the Seas, Aug. 26; Navigator of the Seas, Aug. 30; Mariner of the Seas, Aug. 30; and Harmony of the Seas, Sept. 1.

The company urges passengers to check its website for updates.

Carnival Cruise Line is diverting three of its ships to avoid Dorian. The Aug. 24 sailing on Carnival Breeze will skip its San Juan, Puerto Rico, stop; the Aug. 27 sailing on Carnival Sunrise will switch the order of its visits to Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos, San Juan and Amber Cove, Dominican Republic; and the Aug. 25 sailing on Carnival Magic will go to Amber Cove instead of Nassau, Bahamas.

Norwegian Cruise Line and MSC Cruises have not announced any itinerary changes yet.

Miami Herald Staff Reporters Taylor Dolven, Michelle Marchante, Doug Hanks, Jim Wyss , Elizabeth Koh and Carli Teproff contributed to this story.

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Alex Harris covers climate change for the Miami Herald, including how South Florida communities are adapting to the warming world. She attended the University of Florida.