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As Hurricane Dorian begins lashing Florida, Southeast braces for disaster

Evacuation orders have been issued or are planned for vulnerable coastal areas from Florida to North Carolina.
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As Dorian zeroed in on the U.S. coastline Tuesday night, the Southeast was bracing for disaster. The U.S. government on Tuesday night approved an emergency declaration for North Carolina in advance of the slow-moving and deadly storm that devastated parts of the Bahamas and killed at least seven people there.

By Tuesday night as the storm began lashing the east coast of central Florida, President Donald Trump had approved federal declarations for four states — Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina — and the governor of Virginia had also declared a state of emergency.

Officials from Florida to Virginia warned residents to take the threat of Dorian seriously. The storm is a Category 2 but is still considered dangerous with the potential to produce storm surges of several feet. The hurricane center said at 3 a.m. Wednesday that rain bands from Dorian were moving onshore the northeastern coast of Florida.

"The winds are not as strong as they were, however, they've expanded," Ken Graham, director of the hurricane center, said in a video briefing Tuesday. "So, you can't confuse that with weakening — it's not. You still have a lot of power here, you still have a lot of winds."

The Latest on Dorian:

  • The hurricane was lashing the east coast of central Florida early Wednesday after moving on from the Bahamas, and it was around 105 miles east of Daytona Beach and moving north-northwest at 8 mph.
  • The storm had maximum sustained winds of about 105 mph early Wednesday.
  • At least seven people have died in the Bahamas and more deaths are expected to be reported, the prime minister said.
  • Officials said Dorian was set to move "dangerously close" to Florida's east coast and the Georgia coast through Wednesday night, and near or over the South and North Carolina coasts Thursday through Friday morning.

The hurricane, which had maximum sustained winds of 105 mph and was around 105 miles east of Daytona Beach, Florida, early Wednesday, prompted hurricane warnings for a stretch of Florida from Sebastian Inlet to Ponte Vedra Beach in Florida and from the Savannah River on the Georgia-South Carolina border to Surf City, North Carolina.

Image: Hurricane Dorian prep
Wylie Barns and Alex Stewart fill sandbags in preparation for Hurricane Dorian, in Oak Island, N.C. on Sept. 3, 2019.Ken Blevins / The Star-News via AP

The hurricane is forecast to come "dangerously close" to Florida's east coast and the Georgia coast through Wednesday night. It is expected to move near or over the South and North Carolina coasts Thursday through Friday morning, the hurricane center said.

On its way to the U.S., Dorian devastated parts of the Bahamas, where it camped out for days. "We are in the midst of one of the greatest national crises in our country’s history," the prime minister said Tuesday. Seven deaths have been confirmed but that number could rise, he said.

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North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper urged residents to take evacuation orders seriously.

"We have seen the life-and-death effects of this storm in the Bahamas, and we urge everyone on the islands at the coast to leave," he said in a statement.

Cooper activated more than 300 National Guard members and issued evacuation orders for all barrier islands beginning Wednesday.

Officials in coastal Currituck County declared a state of emergency Tuesday afternoon and ordered a mandatory evacuation of the Outer Banks communities of Carolla and Carova to begin early Wednesday.

Volusia County, Florida, emergency management officials tweeted early Wednesday that all bridges were closed to eastbound traffic with the exception of emergency vehicles, and video taken by NBC affiliate WESH of Winter Park showed rain and winds hitting Cocoa Beach.

The situation appeared similar in St. Augustine Beach, video from WTLV of Jacksonville showed.

No deaths have been reported in the U.S. in connection with storm conditions affecting part of the Florida coast, but on Sunday, a 68-year-old man in Indialantic died while preparing for the storm, police said. David Alan Bradley fell from a ladder on his third-story balcony while putting plywood on his windows, Indialantic Police Chief Michael Connor confirmed in an email early Wednesday.

On Sunday, the governors of South Carolina and Georgia ordered at least 1 million people to evacuate their coasts beginning Monday. Authorities in Florida also ordered mandatory evacuations in some vulnerable coastal areas.

More than 120 shelters in Florida filled with people who decided it was too dangerous to stay home. In South Carolina, emergency management officials tweeted Tuesday that shelters would open across the state.

The hurricane center warned Tuesday that storm surges of 4 to 7 feet could be seen in parts of the coast from the Savannah River on the Georgia-South Carolina border to Cape Lookout in North Carolina, and storm surges of 3 to 5 feet could occur from the Volusia and Brevard county line in Florida to the Savannah River.

It said that storm surge warnings were in place from Jupiter Inlet in Florida all the way to Surf City, North Carolina, which is north of Wilmington. A storm surge watch extended north to the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, the hurricane center said.

"These potential impacts, including flooding, structural damage, storm surge and serious beach erosion in our coastal communities cannot be understated," Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said in a statement Tuesday.

In downtown Charleston, South Carolina, attorney Henry Grimball, 71, and his wife planned to ride out the storm. "These houses have been here since 1770," Grimball told the AP. "They've been through a lot."

Grimball said that he would reconsider if Dorian strengthens to a Category 3 or stronger, recalling Hurricane Hugo in 1989, which killed several dozen people.

Across the U.S., areas with a population of more than 5.6 million were under hurricane warnings and another 11.8 million were under tropical storm warnings early Wednesday, according to the National Weather Service.

The hurricane is expected to remain at about the same intensity for the next couple of days, and even if it does not make landfall, hurricane-force winds are expected to reach parts of the coast from central Florida to North Carolina, the hurricane center said in a forecast discussion posted online Tuesday night.

In addition to the storm surge, coastal parts of the Carolinas could get 5 to 10 inches of rain, with isolated totals of 15 inches possible, and the coast from parts of Florida to Georgia could get 3 to 6 inches, forecasters said.

Hubert Minnis, the prime minister of the Bahamas, told reporters on Tuesday night that he had toured Abaco and that the airport was underwater, with the runway completely flooded.

"The area around the airport now looks like a lake," Minnis said.

More than 13,000 homes on the Abaco Islands and the neighboring Grand Bahama island were damaged or destroyed. About 62,000 people on both islands are in need of fresh water, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

"It's total devastation. It's decimated. Apocalyptic. It looks like a bomb went off," Lia Head-Rigby, who helps run a local hurricane relief organization and flew over the Abaco Islands, said according to the Associated Press. “It's not rebuilding something that was there; we have to start again."

Minnis said images and videos seen by officials were heartbreaking, with many homes, businesses and other buildings completely or partly destroyed.

In an interview Tuesday night on MSNBC's "The Rachel Maddow Show," he said he was confident that the Bahamas would emerge stronger than ever.

"Bahamians are a resilient group. What you will find is that even after asking them to leave, the average Bahamian would want to stay in their community and rebuild," he said.

"We've faced many hurricanes where communities were destroyed and they came together to rebuild."

Queen Elizabeth, who acts as head of state for the Bahamas, sent her condolences, saying in a statement via Buckingham Palace that she was "shocked and saddened."

"At this very difficult time, my thoughts and prayers are with those who have seen their homes and property destroyed," she said.