Dorian Category 4; May Skirt Florida

MIAMI (AP) -- Hurricane Dorian bore down on the northwestern Bahamas as a fierce Category 4 storm Saturday, as new projections curved upward enough to potentially spare Florida a direct hit while still threatening it with powerful winds and storm surge.

Forecasters on Saturday said the ever-strengthening Dorian is expected to dance up the Southeast coastline, staying just off shore of Florida and skirting the coast of Georgia, with the possibility of landfall still a threat on Wednesday, and then continuing up to South Carolina early Thursday.

The National Hurricane Center in Miami said the risk of "strong winds and life-threatening storm surge" will increase along the Georgia and South Carolina coasts by the middle of next week.

The center also stressed that doesn't mean Dorian packing 145 mph (230 kph) winds won't hit Florida, with large portions of the state in its cone of uncertainty forecast. Still, after days of a forecast that put the Sunshine State and President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in the center of expected landfalls, the changes are significant.

"It's going to be pretty scary because you're going to have this gigantic hurricane sitting off the coast of Florida and it's not going to move," said private meteorologist Ryan Maue, but with the storm slowing and likely to turn north he adds: "The worst effects of a direct landfall are not in the forecast."

"At this point the track the hurricane center is issuing is not the catastrophe that could happen, which is good," Maue said Saturday.

But it's not good news for the Bahamas, where some of the most reliable computer models have the storm stalling and dumping as much as 50 inches (127 centimeters) of rain. He said expect two to four feet (0.6 to 1.2 meters) of rain there.

Millions of people in Florida have been in the changing potential path of the hurricane. Forecasters say Dorian, which had top sustained winds of 145 mph Saturday morning, will hover along Florida's east coast Tuesday and Wednesday.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis warned Floridians not to let their guard down.

"Looking at these forecasts, a bump in one direction or the other could have really significant ramifications in terms of impact. If it bumps further east, that obviously is positive. If it bumps just a little west, than you're looking at really, really significant impacts," DeSantis said at a briefing Saturday morning.

He added that even if Dorian doesn't make landfall in Florida, the state could still be affected by "really significant storm surge" as it heads north along the East Coast.

Trump has declared a state of emergency in Florida and authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster-relief efforts. He told reporters that "Mar-a-Lago can handle itself" and that he is more worried about Florida.

As Dorian closed in, Labor Day weekend plans were upended. Major airlines began allowing travelers to change their reservations without fees. The big cruise lines began rerouting their ships. Disney World and Orlando's other resorts found themselves in the storm's projected path.

Still, with Dorian days away and its track uncertain, Disney and other major resorts held off announcing any closings, and Florida authorities ordered no immediate mass evacuations.

But some counties announced mandatory evacuations ahead of time on Friday. Brevard County and Martin County officials said residents of barrier islands, mobile homes and low-lying areas would be under a mandatory evacuation order beginning Sunday morning --- though they could change. The Brevard County order includes the Kennedy Space Center.

Homeowners and businesses rushed to cover their windows with plywood. Supermarkets ran out of bottled water, and long lines formed at gas stations, with some fuel shortages reported.

At a Publix supermarket in Cocoa Beach, Ed Ciecirski of the customer service department said the pharmacy was extra busy with people rushing to fill prescriptions. The grocery was rationing bottled water and had run out of dry ice.

"It's hairy," he said.

Early Saturday, Dorian was centered 445 miles (715 kilometers) east of West Palm Beach. It was moving northwest at 12 mph (17 kph). Forecasters warned that its slow movement means Florida could face a prolonged wallop of wind, storm surge and torrential rain.

Coastal areas of the southeastern United States could get 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 centimeters) of rain, with 18 inches (46 centimeters) in some places, triggering life-threatening flash floods, the hurricane center said.

Also imperiled were the Bahamas, where canned food and bottled water were disappearing quickly from shelves and the sound of hammering echoed across the islands as people boarded up their homes. Dorian was expected to hit the northwestern part of the Bahamas by Sunday with the potential for life-threatening storm surge that could raise water levels 15 feet (5 meters) above normal.

"Do not be foolish and try to brave out this hurricane," Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said. "The price you may pay for not evacuating is your life."

(KR)