By Gabriella Borter
TITUSVILLE, Fla. (Reuters) – Hurricane Dorian intensified into a dangerous category 5 storm as it hit the Bahamas on Sunday, expected to pound the islands with up to two days of torrential rain, high waves and damaging winds as parts of Florida evacuated in case the storm lashes the U.S. mainland.
On Great Guana Cay, just off Great Abaco Island, waves began washing over low-lying parts of the tiny 9-mile (14-km) strand of land that is only about a quarter-mile wide by mid-morning, resident Tom Creenan said.
Although some residents left for Nassau and elsewhere days ago, some 200 to 300 are riding out the storm on Great Guana Cay, where power was already out and forecasters are predicting up to 2 feet (61 cm) of rain and 20-foot (6.1-meter) storm surges.
“The other day the prime minister came out and said everybody in Abaco should leave,” Creenan said by phone. “But there’s no place to go.”
“This is the strongest hurricane that’s ever hit in the Bahamas,” Creenan said. “I grew up in Florida, so I’ve been through Andrew.”
Hurricane Andrew slammed into eastern Florida in 1992 as a category 5 storm, obliterating the town of Homestead.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) said Dorian had maximum sustained winds of 175 miles per hour (280 km per hour) early on Sunday and was over Abaco. Wind gusts were recorded at over 200 mph (322 kph).
After churning over the Bahamas, it is expected to veer northwest toward Florida, with the Miami-based NHC raising its alert on Sunday for parts of the state’s east coast to a tropical storm warning.
With those warnings and the storm intensifying, adjoining Palm Beach and Martin counties issued mandatory evacuations for some residents, including those in mobile homes, barrier islands and low-lying areas. Other counties along the coast have announced voluntary evacuations.
While not expected to strike Florida, the NHC cautioned residents to remain on alert and said “a Florida landfall is still a distinct possibility.”
Communities further north in Georgia and South Carolina raised alert levels on Saturday, with residents filling sandbags as authorities tested infrastructure and hurricane drills.
While Dorian could spare the United States a direct impact, the NHC warned the Category 5 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson Wind Scale would lash millions from Florida to the Carolinas with strong winds and punishing surf.
“This has been a slow-moving storm,” Peter Gaynor, acting Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) administrator, told CNN, adding the hurricane was expected to stall off of West Palm Beach, Florida, on Monday and linger along the U.S. coast until Friday. “This is a serious storm. You can’t take your eye off it. You have to make preparations now.”
Most tourists who planned to leave the Bahamas got out before the main airport closed on Friday night.
Jeffrey Simmons, the deputy director of Bahamas’ department of meteorology, said Dorian will cause prolonged periods of large swells and storm surges along the north coast of Grand Bahama and the north and east coast of Abaco.
Potential damage to the Bahamas from Dorian could be exacerbated by the fact that its westward motion is forecast to slow, keeping it over the islands for longer, the Bahamas National Emergency Management Agency said in a statement.
Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis begged residents of Abaco and Grand Bahamas to head for the main island to escape the “devastating, dangerous” storm.
“I want you to remember: homes, houses, structures can be replaced. Lives cannot be replaced,” he told a news conference on Saturday, adding that 73,000 people and 21,000 homes were at risk from storm surges.
Meanwhile, a new tropical storm has formed southwest of Mexico and is expected to become a hurricane on Monday. Tropical Storm Juliette is 455 miles (735 km) from Manzanillo, Mexico, with maximum sustained winds of 45 mph (75 kph), the NHC said on Sunday.
(Reporting by Gabriella Borter in Titusville; Additional reporting by Peter Szekely in New York and Zachary Fagenson in Jacksonsville; Writing by Lisa Shumaker; Editing by Dale Hudson and Daniel Wallis)