Hurricane Dorian slows as it pounds the Bahamas. Will it turn before Florida?

The fate of Florida’s coast lies in a northern turn, which could keep one of the strongest Atlantic storms in recorded history out to sea or send it crashing into the densely populated shore.

Hurricane Dorian spent most of Sunday tearing through the Bahamas as a fearsome Category 5 storm — with maximum sustained winds of 185 miles per hour, gusts topping 220 mph and around 20 feet of storm surge. Initial images show homes and buildings with sheared off roofs soaked under feet of water.

The threat of such an intense storm — and the windshield wiper path of its predicted track— has thrown nearly all of Florida for a loop. Residents up and down the state have emptied gas stations, grocery stores and hardware stores. With the forecast track shifting razor-close to the coast, much of the state’s Atlantic shoreline was under a hurricane or tropical storm watch or warning. A handful of counties, from Palm Beach north to Volusia, had opened emergency shelters or called for mandatory evacuations in coastal zones. The state suspended many tolls.

By 5 a.m. Monday, the storm continued to weaken and has slowed to nearly a halt, traveling at 1 mph. Winds dropped to 165 mph.

With Dorian still 115 miles from West Palm Beach early Monday morning, it was still not clear if the hurricane will make landfall in Florida. The National Hurricane Center expected the powerful storm to hover over the Bahamas for the next 36 hours, dumping one to two feet of rain and crawling west, before making a gradual turn north just off Florida’s coast. The storm was barely moving early Monday.

“On this track, the core of extremely dangerous Hurricane Dorian will continue to pound Grand Bahama Island through much of today and tonight,” forecasters said in their 5 a.m. advisory. “The hurricane will move dangerously close to the Florida east coast tonight through Wednesday evening.”

Dorian had hurricane-force winds extending 45 miles from its center and tropical-force winds extending 145 miles from its center. That meant even a wobble the wrong way could have disastrous implications.

“A small deviation to the left of the track could bring the intense core of the hurricane and its dangerous winds closer to or onto the Florida coast,” forecasters wrote.

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A storm surge warning is in effect from Lantana to Volusia. A hurricane watch is in effect from Deerfield to Jupiter Inlet.

It all comes down to that north turn the National Hurricane Center predicted will come over the next two days. The chances of one other possibility — the storm turning south unexpectedly, an Andrew-style surprise — are low, said Hugh Willoughby, former director of NOAA’s Hurricane Research Division.

“The track forecasts have developed to such an extent that if it was a possibility we would see that in at least some of the ensemble models,” said Willoughby, a professor at Florida International University. “You can pretty much count on the turn, but the question is how far north?”

The days of uncertainty had millions glued to the track forecast and many residents armoring (and even un-armoring) their homes through the Labor Day weekend.

Nick and Leslie Smiciklas and their 15-year-old daughter Summer plan to evacuate their canal-front home in Vero Beach Monday morning with their dog, two cats and Summer’s grandparents. They have already put up their shutters, stowed all their outdoor furniture in the house, and pulled Nick’s 23-foot center console fishing boat out of the water and onto a trailer in the yard.

“We were at a standstill all the way up till this morning for me because the storm’s been doing crazy things. Yesterday we kinda had a sigh of relief thinking that, okay, it’s going stay east of us a little bit --50 maybe 100 miles. There’s just too many variables about what it could do. If it even gets 20 miles offshore, it could do a tremendous amount of damage in this area right here,” Nick said.

The hurricane center advisory prompted a fresh wave of watches and warnings for seven counties along the coast, which could lead to more mandatory evacuation calls Monday. Miami-Dade was not in the zone. South Carolina’s governor ordered mandatory evacuation of the entire coastline Sunday evening.

Gov. Ron DeSantis called the images out of the Bahamas “really, really devastating” but warned at a late Sunday briefing that people must “prepare, potentially, for this to make landfall here.”

“At the end of the day, please prepare because this is a big boy,’‘ DeSantis said.

He repeated his call for people to evacuate if they live along the east coast areas that have been prone to flooding or wind damage in the past. DeSantis said he had a conference call with members of the state legislature, and the members of county emergency operations centers to notify them of the targeted staging of emergency supplies and response teams ahead of the storm.

“For us in South Florida, the message today still is: Prepare, wait and see,” Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said at a news conference at the county’s emergency-operations center in Doral.

The former Miami fire chief led off by expressing concern about Dorian’s ravaging of the Bahamas.

“I just cannot fathom what the people in the Bahamas are going through right now,” Gimenez said.

He said he was calling the White House to offer Miami-Dade’s urban search-and-rescue teams for deployment to the Bahamas as part of an international relief operation.

Bahamian Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis called said the day Dorian hit was “the most sad and worst day of my life,” as the strongest storm to ever hit the northern Bahamas leveled parts of Hope Town, submerged hotels on the Abaco Islands that served as shelter and forced some residents to flee on foot mid-hurricane.

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Airport snarls

The hurricane was already causing travel snarls during the busy Labor Day holiday weekend. Dozens of flights were canceled at Miami International Airport and Fort-Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport. FLL will close Monday at noon “until further notice.”

Sunday morning, state officials said they expected additional storm watches to be announced soon on Florida’s east coast as Dorian nears the state.

“It’s Groundhog Day #5,” State Emergency Response Team chief Kevin Guthrie told the Florida Emergency Operations Center Sunday morning, referencing Dorian’s slow-moving path.

He said logistical teams should focus on using in-state mutual aid agreements as the storm’s uncertain track swung slightly offshore in the Atlantic, so that resources would be available for the state’s most threatened counties should Dorian hit hard.

“We’re starting to see more of the Panhandle free up, some of the west coast free up,” he said. The state has already begun using some of those agreements to prepare pumps, transportation assets and sanitation packages, SERT logistics chief Eugene Buerkle said.

President Donald Trump, in a Sunday press conference, said he was “working very hard” with Governor DeSantis to provide fuel, staff and resources for the state.

On the ground

The warnings issued Sunday were already having an effect on residents in the impacted areas. At BagelWorks in Boca Raton, a restaurant and deli that boasts “ridiculously good food’’ and is perpetually packed, patrons were still streaming in around 11 a.m. Sunday, though there were a few more empty tables than usual.

Robin Karas, 58, a popular waitress there the past 10 years, lives about 20 miles north of Boca in Lake Worth. But Karas was dutifully serving freshly baked bagels and eggs and breakfast food to her customers.

That doesn’t mean she wasn’t nervous.

“We’ll be notified by tonight when they see what the winds will do as to what’s going on here at work,’’ Karas said. “I’m very nervous and kind of stressed.

“Until the hurricane is out of the Bahamas I am extremely uncertain of what it’s going to do to us, so I’m very prepared. I have to stay with my daughter because her husband is in law enforcement and they have two small daughters, ages 4 and 2. They live about six minutes away from me and have impact windows and shutters and a generator and propane so I feel a little safer there.”

The coming storm didn’t seem to scare off beach-goers and surfers judging by the crowd at Stuart Beach Sunday afternoon, which was breezy, but still sunny and hot.

Rob Paulk, 65, a Florida native and life-long surfer actually drove up from Boca Raton to ride some Dorian-produced swells.

“There’s better waves up here than in the south,” he said. “Out of the shadow of Bahama Bank, most of the surfers in South Florida will come here.”

Amanda and Mark Fossati lounged in the sand trying to get away from the constant storm updates.

“I think the Weather Channel is in cahoots with Publix,” Amanda said, joking, but clearly weary of days of changing forecasts and the back-and-forth discussions about staying or going.

“They create a panic, and I’m not falling for it anymore,” she said.

Mark said “he’s a little more conservative” than his wife when it comes to understanding officials, forecasters and journalists preparing the public to impending hurricanes, but by Sunday, he’d had enough.

“So, we decided today we can’t spend anymore time in the house, so we came to the beach,” he said.

Even in the most vulnerable spots, where a slight drift in Dorian’s path could spell destruction, some Floridians are taking their chances.

On Hutchinson Island in St. Lucie County, Patty McGee decided to wait out the impending storm in a second-floor apartment one block away from the 70-year-old bar she owns, Archie’s Seabreeze.

“I’m more apprehensive about this one,” said McGee, 75, who had to rebuild Archie’s after getting completely waterlogged by hurricanes Frances and Jeanne in 2004. Recovery cost more than $300,000.

Dorian looks scarier, but she’s not leaving. She’ll be staying with her niece, 65-year-old Robin Feeney. They’ve got Scrabble, Backgammon and faith to get them through whatever comes.

McGee vacillated between confidence about the island’s resilience, the strength of the community here, and resignation the neighborhood’s fate is in nature’s hands. But she’s not leaving. She’d be more worried off the island, eating out of cans and stressing over her home and business.

Feeney has a waterproof safe with important documents in it. Her son in the Kentucky has the combination, in case it’s needed.

“You just want to make sure your affairs are kind of in order,” she said, adding that her phone has lit up with friends urging her to leave. She doesn’t want to get stuck in traffic with no place to go.

“I’ve made a lot of phone calls telling everybody I love them in case, you know, I don’t get a chance to do it again,” she said, with nervous chuckle.

Miami Herald staff writers Susan Miller Degnan, Doug Hanks, Mary Ellen Klas, Rene Rodriguez, David J. Neal, Bianca Padró Ocasio and David Goodhue contributed to this report. Sue Cocking, former outdoor reporter for the Miami Herald, also contributed.

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Rene Rodriguez has worked at the Miami Herald in a variety of roles since 1989. He currently writes for the business desk covering real estate and the city’s affordability crisis.
Since 1989, David J. Neal’s domain at the Miami Herald has expanded to include writing about Panthers (NHL and FIU), Dolphins, old school animation, food safety, fraud, naughty lawyers, bad doctors and all manner of breaking news. He drinks coladas whole. He does not work Indianapolis 500 Race Day.