FREEPORT, Bahamas — Practically parking over the Bahamas for over a day and a half, Hurricane Dorian pounded away at the islands Tuesday in a watery onslaught that devastated thousands of homes, trapped people in attics and crippled hospitals. At least seven deaths were reported, with the full extent of the damage far from clear.
The United Nations and the International Red Cross began mobilizing to deal with the unfolding humanitarian crisis. Prime Minister Hubert Minnis called it "a historic tragedy."
The storm's relentless winds and torrential rain battered the islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama, which have a combined population of about 70,000 and are known for their marinas, golf courses and all-inclusive resorts. The Grand Bahama airport was under 6 feet of water.
Desperate callers trying to find loved ones left messages with local radio stations as Health Minister Duane Sands said that Dorian devastated the health infrastructure in Grand Bahama island and that severe flooding rendered the main hospital unusable. He said he hoped to send an advanced medical team soon to the Abaco islands.
"We will confirm what the real situation is on the ground," he said. "We are hoping and praying that the loss of life is limited."
Red Cross spokesman Matthew Cochrane said more than 13,000 houses, or about 45% of the homes in Grand Bahama and Abaco, were believed to have been severely damaged or destroyed. U.N. officials said more than 60,000 people on the hard-hit islands will need food, and the Red Cross said some 62,000 will need clean drinking water.
The Red Cross authorized a half-million dollars to fund the first wave of response, Cochrane said.
"What we are hearing lends credence to the fact that this has been a catastrophic storm and a catastrophic impact," he said.
Sands said the main hospital in Marsh Harbor in the Abaco islands was intact and sheltering 400 people but in need of food, water, medicine and surgical supplies. He said crews were trying to airlift five to seven kidney failure patients from Abaco who had not received dialysis since Friday.
To the south, the Bahamas' most populous island, New Providence, which is the site of the capital, Nassau, and has over a quarter-million people, suffered little damage.
As of 11 p.m., Dorian was about 95 miles east of Cape Canaveral, Florida. The storm's winds had dipped to 110 mph, making it a still highly dangerous Category 2 hurricane, and the storm was moving north northwest at 6 mph.
Dorian began scraping Florida's east coast with its winds and rain Tuesday evening as it tracks offshore.
As Dorian moved along the coast, the center circulation was getting larger with tropical storm force winds extending about 130 miles from the center of the storm.
By around 8 a.m. Wednesday, Dorian is expected to reach just east of Jacksonville, Florida.
NASA satellite imagery through Monday night showed spots in the Bahamas where Dorian had dumped as much as 35 inches of rain.
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Dorian was expected to approach the Florida coast later Tuesday, but the threat to the state eased significantly, with the National Hurricane Center's projected track showing most of the coast just outside the cone of potential landfall. No place in Florida had more than an 8% chance of getting hit by hurricane-force winds.
The forecast instead showed North Carolina in the crosshairs later in the week.
As Labor Day weekend drew to a close, over 2 million people in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina were warned to evacuate for fear Dorian could bring life-threatening storm-surge flooding even if the hurricane's center stayed offshore, as forecast. Several large airports announced closings, and hundreds of flights were canceled.
The U.S. Coast Guard airlifted at least 21 people injured on Abaco Island, which Dorian hit on Sunday with sustained winds of 185 mph and gusts up to 220 mph, a strength matched only by the Labor Day hurricane of 1935, before storms were named.
Scientists say climate change generally has been fueling more powerful and wetter storms and the only recorded storm more powerful than Dorian was Hurricane Allen in 1980, with 190 mph winds, though it did not make landfall at that strength.
Abaco and Grand Bahama, neither much more than 40 feet above sea level at their highest points, are home to some 70,000 people.
Bahamian officials said they received a "tremendous" number of calls from people in flooded homes. One radio station said it received more than 2,000 distress messages, including reports of a 5-month-old baby stranded on a roof and a woman with six grandchildren who cut a hole in a roof to escape rising floodwaters. At least two designated storm shelters flooded.
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Dorian killed one person in Puerto Rico, at the start of its path through the Caribbean.
Minnis said many homes and buildings were severely damaged or destroyed, but it was too early to say how much the rebuilding effort would cost. Choppy brown floodwaters reached roofs and the top of palm trees on Monday.
Parliament member Iram Lewis told The Associated Press his greatest fear was that waters would keep rising overnight and that stranded people would lose contact with officials as cellphone batteries died.
"It is scary," he said, adding that Grand Bahama's airport was 6 feet underwater and that people were moving shelters as floodwaters kept surging. "We're definitely in dire straits."
Forecasters said that the storm had come to a near standstill because the steering currents in the atmosphere had collapsed, but that Dorian would resume moving later in the day, getting "dangerously close" to the Florida coast through Wednesday evening, very near the Georgia and South Carolina coasts Wednesday night and Thursday, and near or over the North Carolina shoreline late Thursday.
Meteorologist Daniel Brown cautioned that even "a small deviation" in its projected track could take the storm toward land.
Walt Disney World in Orlando planned to close in the afternoon, and SeaWorld shut down.
In South Carolina, Interstate 26 was turned into a one-way evacuation route away from Charleston on the coast, and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp likewise planned to reverse lanes on I-16 on Tuesday to speed the flow of traffic away from the danger zone.
"We're taking the 'better safe than sorry' attitude," Kemp said.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Dorian was expected to start moving slowly to the west-northwest Tuesday while continuing to pound Grand Bahama Island into the morning.
The Center said the track would carry the storm "dangerously close to the Florida east coast late Tuesday through Wednesday evening and then move dangerously close to the Georgia and South Carolina coasts on Wednesday night and Thursday."
While it was expected to stay offshore, meteorologists cautioned that "only a small deviation" could draw the storm's dangerous core toward land.
The federal government announced Tuesday night that it has granted a request for a federal disaster declaration for North Carolina in anticipation of Hurricane Dorian's impact on the state.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper requested the federal declaration on Sept. 2. Cooper said North Carolina has faced difficult storms before and is preparing for Hurricane Dorian to track up the Southeast coast this week.
"We're taking every precaution to make sure we're prepared," said Cooper. "I appreciate the support of our federal partners in making sure our state is ready to respond to whatever Hurricane Dorian brings."
A mandatory evacuation of entire South Carolina coast took effect Monday covering about 830,000 people, and transportation officials reversed all lanes of Interstate 26 from Charleston to head inland earlier than planned after noticing traffic jams from evacuees and vacationers heading home on Labor Day, Gov. Henry McMaster said.
The most populous coastal county to be evacuated is Dare County, where 250,000 people, including 36,000 residents, have been told to get out.
In New Hanover County, where flooding cut off the city of Wilmington during last year's Hurricane Florence, officials said they didn't expect a similar issue from Dorian. They say the storm isn't expected to dump as much rain and the ground isn't as saturated as it was last year.
Forecasters noted that even if Dorian doesn't make landfall, it's likely to bring dangerous winds, life-threatening storm surge and flooding rains to parts of the Carolinas.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp ordered mandatory evacuations for that state's Atlantic coast, also starting at midday Monday.
Authorities in Florida also ordered some mandatory evacuations.
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FlightAware.com reported that airlines had canceled 1,361 flights within, into or out of the US by Monday afternoon - vastly above an average day - with Fort Lauderdale International the most affected, and airlines had already canceled 1,057 flights for Tuesday, many involving Orlando, Fort Lauderdale and Miami airports.
HURRICANE WATCHES AND WARNINGS:
- Sebastian Inlet, Fla. to Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
- North of Savannah River to Surf City, North Carolina
- North of Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. to Savannah River
- North of Surf City, North Carolina to the North Carolina / Virginia border
- Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds
Tropical Storm Warning:
- Grand Bahama and the Abacos Islands in the northwestern Bahamas
- North of Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. to Savannah River
- Jupiter Inlet, Fla. to Sebastian Point southward
A National Guard official, John Anderson, said many people were complying with the evacuation orders.
"We have not seen much resistance at all," he said.
FEMA Associate Administrator Carlos Castillo said Tuesday that residents along the U.S. East Coast should be prepared to evacuate if necessary and should heed evacuation orders from local officials.
He says: "Don't tough it out, get out."
Castillo says FEMA has over 1,600 employees deployed or on the way to Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina.
The American Red Cross says they've already opened 170 shelters and evacuation centers. Over 13,000 people are already at those facilities.
Channel 9 meteorologists said Dorian will most likely begin pulling away from the Bahamas early Tuesday and curving to the northeast parallel to the U.S. Southeast seaboard.
The potent storm was expected to stay close to shore and hammer the coast with dangerous winds and heavy surf, while authorities cautioned that it could still make landfall. This means the area will be dealing with hurricane winds, life-threatening storm surge and heavy rainfall.
Meteorologist Jaclyn Shearer said that the exact track, including the potential for landfall, will be pretty unclear until late Tuesday.
Severe Weather Center 9 meteorologists said the most likely track for Dorian looks eerily similar to Hurricane Matthew in 2016, but they are two very different storms. Matthew reached Category 5 status, and hugged the coast slightly closer than what we're expecting Dorian to do.
That being said, storms that hug the coast can be very strong and dangerous because they never lose their fuel source -- warm ocean water.
That means coastal areas especially should be concerned about extensive flooding and strong winds for much of next week, with outer rain bands potentially reaching as far inland as the Charlotte metro area.
Powerful Hurricane Dorian has been going nowhere because nothing high up is making it budge.
It may sound strange when talking about a storm that once had 185 mph winds, but it's actually been too calm high in the atmosphere. While this has been horrible for the Bahamas, where the storm's pounding has been relentless, it may help spare Florida a bit, meteorologists said.
Usually, the upper atmosphere's winds push and pull hurricanes north or west or at least somewhere. They are so powerful that they dictate where these big storms go.
But the steering currents at 18,000 feet above ground have just ground to a halt. They are not moving, so neither is Dorian.
After reaching record-tying wind speeds on landfall in the Bahamas, the storm just stalled. Its eyewall first hit Grand Bahama Island Sunday night, and 18 hours later part of the eye still lingered there, meteorologists said. The hurricane center late Monday called the storm "stationary" after several hours of crawling at 1 mph.
"This is unprecedented," said Jeff Masters, meteorology director at Weather Underground who used to fly into hurricanes. "We've never had a Category 5 stall for so long in the Atlantic hurricane record."
What's happening -- or more aptly, not happening -- has been an ongoing battle between high pressure systems that push storms and low pressure systems that pull them.
A high pressure system in Bermuda has been acting like a wall, keeping Dorian from heading north. But a low pressure trough moving east from the Midwest has eroded that high and is trying to pull Dorian north. Those two weather systems "are fighting it out and neither is winning," Masters said.
There's just no flow pushing it anywhere. Think of it like a tiny paper boat or a pebble in a stagnant pond, which just doesn't move, said Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach.
Air -- high off the ground and closer to where people live -- is often stagnant in the summer and this is an extreme version of that, Masters said.
In 2017, Hurricane Harvey got stuck when steering currents collapsed, absolutely drenching Houston, but that wasn't as powerful a storm as Dorian, Klotzbach said.
Usually, hurricanes that don't move eventually kill themselves because they churn up colder water from deep below the surface and storms need warm water as fuel, Masters said.
"It's got to keep moving," Masters said.
But the Bahamas and the Gulf Stream are one of the few places where warm water runs so deep. Stalling isn't as much of a death sentence there as elsewhere, but it will still weaken the storm a bit, which is good for Florida and the U.S. East Coast, Klotzbach said.
And the longer Dorian stalls in the Bahamas, the more the low pressure system has a chance to erode the high pressure and pull the hurricane north and away from Florida, Masters said.
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