Hurricane Dorian intensified into a dangerous category 5 storm as it approached the Bahamas on Sunday, expected to pound the islands with up to two days of torrential rain, high waves and damaging winds before taking aim at the U.S. mainland.
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, which are predicted to reach up to 20 feet (6.1 meters).
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 about 25 miles (40 km) off of 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.
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.
Grand Bahama and Abaco are hubs of the Bahamas’ thriving tourism industry. But after days of evacuations only 26 tourists are left on Grand Bahama, authorities said on Saturday.
“We have been for the last few days asking all tourists to leave the island in anticipation of the hurricane,” said Kwasi Thompson, minister of state for Grand Bahama.
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.