An increasingly menacing-looking Hurricane Dorian is threatening to broadside the US state of Florida over Labour Day weekend.
Leaving lighter-than-expected damage in its wake in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, the second hurricane of the 2019 season swirled towards the US, with forecasters warning it will draw energy from the warm, open waters as it closes in.
The National Hurricane Centre said the Category two storm is expected to strengthen into a potentially catastrophic Category four with winds of 130mph and slam into the US on Monday somewhere between the Florida Keys and southern Georgia — a 500-mile stretch that reflected the high degree of uncertainty this far out.
“If it makes landfall as a category three or four hurricane, that’s a big deal,” said University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy.
US president Donald Trump cancelled his weekend trip to Poland and warned Florida residents to be prepared.
“All indications are it’s going to hit very hard and it’s going to be very big,” he said in a video he tweeted on Thursday evening, comparing Dorian to Hurricane Andrew, which devastated South Florida in 1992.
With the storm’s track still unclear, no immediate mass evacuations were ordered.
Along Florida’s east coast, local governments began distributing sandbags, shoppers rushed to stock up on food, plywood and other emergency supplies at supermarkets and hardware stores, and motorists topped off their tanks and filled petrol cans. Some fuel shortages were reported in the Cape Canaveral area.
Josefine Larrauri, a retired translator, went to a Publix supermarket in Miami only to find empty shelves in the water section and store employees unsure of when more cases would arrive.
“I feel helpless because the whole coast is threatened,” she said. “What’s the use of going all the way to Georgia if it can land there?”
As of Thursday night in Florida, Dorian was centred about 295 miles north-east of the Bahamas, its winds blowing at 105mph as it moved north-west at 12mph.
It is expected to pick up steam as it pushes out into warm waters with favourable winds, the University of Miami’s McNoldy said, adding: “Starting tomorrow, it really has no obstacles left in its way.”
The National Hurricane Centre’s projected track had the storm blowing ashore midway along the Florida peninsula, south-east of Orlando and well north of Miami or Fort Lauderdale.
But because of the difficulty of predicting its course this far ahead, the “cone of uncertainty” covered nearly the entire state.
Forecasters said coastal areas of the Southeast could get five to 10 inches (13 to 25cm) of rain, with 15 inches (38cm) in some places, triggering life-threatening flash floods.
Also at risk were the Bahamas, with Dorian’s expected track running just to the north of Great Abaco and Grand Bahama islands.
Jeff Byard, an associate administrator at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), warned that Dorian was likely to “create a lot of havoc with infrastructure, power and roads”, but gave assurances FEMA is prepared to handle it.
“This is going to be a big storm. We’re prepared for a big response,” he said.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency, clearing the way to bring in more fuel and call out the National Guard if necessary, and Georgia’s governor followed suit.
Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Norwegian began rerouting their cruise ships, while major airlines began allowing travellers to change their reservations without a fee.
At the Kennedy Space Centre at Cape Canaveral, Nasa decided to move the mobile launch platform for its new mega rocket under development indoors.
Dorian rolled through the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico as a Category one hurricane on Wednesday.
The initial blow did not appear to be as bad as expected in Puerto Rico, which is still recovering from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria two years ago.
But the tail end of the storm unleashed heavy flooding along the eastern and southern coasts.