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As Hurricane Dorian continues to ravage the Bahamas, preparations ramp up in Florida

If the scenes from the islands evoked grief and confusion across Florida, they also served as a warning to officials up and down the state.
A message to Hurricane Dorian is spray painted on a covering over a window at the Coastal Angler Magazine office Monday in Cocoa Beach. [JOHN RAOUX | AP]
Published Sep. 2
Updated Sep. 3

Florida capped a long weekend of waiting in horror and apprehension Monday as Hurricane Dorian parked itself over the Bahamas, refusing to reveal its path.

Although Dorian weakened somewhat from a Category 5 to a Category 4 storm with maximum sustained winds of 140 miles per hour, it remained formidable. Several more Florida counties issued evacuation orders; one of the state’s busiest airports, Orlando International, announced it would stop commercial operations Tuesday and officials moved patients in coastal health care facilities to safer locations.

Even in the Tampa Bay area, all of which has been out of Dorian’s projected path for several days, public servants eyed the monster storm warily. In Hillsborough, Pinellas, Hernando and Pasco counties, officials planned to wait until Dorian made its turn north — which forecasters expected by late Tuesday — before breathing a sigh of relief.

Perhaps more than anything, Floridians watched with dread as a second straight day of terrible news poured in from the Bahamas, the state’s island neighbor to the east.

Dorian was one of the most deliberate hurricanes in recent memory before Monday, spending days crawling along the Atlantic Ocean at just a few miles per hour. But on Monday, the storm took its slowness to another level, moving at just one mile per hour for much of the day, according to the National Hurricane Center. By 5 p.m., the storm had stopped moving entirely.

The storm’s lack of movement spelled disaster for the Bahamas, which bore the brunt of its terrible wind and rain for well over a day. Five Bahamians were reported dead by Prime Minister Hubert Minnis Monday, but that count was not believed to be exhaustive.

Social media videos from the weekend showed desperate residents trapped in houses pounded by several feet of storm surge. In one video, the country’s The Minister of Agriculture and Marine Resources, Michael Pintard, appeared to show water lapping against his kitchen windows.

“That has to be a minimum of about 20 feet above the ground," Pintard said of the storm surge in the video, which was shared widely on Twitter.

Because the storm lingered so long around Grand Bahama Island on Monday, it was difficult for residents to take full stock of the damage from Sunday, when the storm first made landfall in the nation’s Abaco Islands.

Amy Senica Iovino of Holiday said she has been visiting the Bahamas since she was a girl. Her family still owns two plots of land on the Abaco Islands, she said. Iovino spent some of this weekend taking in shocking social media dispatches from the foreign country she has grown to love.

“It’s devastating knowing they couldn’t evacuate or get off,” Iovino said. “It hits home really what a hurricane can do.”

Dana Prowell, Iovino’s sister, lives on Florida’s east coast. She said she has been caught between heartbreak and changing forecasts for her native Jupiter all weekend.

At least one Florida state representative was directly affected by the destruction in the Bahamas. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, tweeted harrowing videos of his own family braving strong winds in what appeared to be a partially torn down structure.

If the scenes from the Bahamas evoked grief and confusion across Florida, they also served as a warning to officials up and down the state.

By Monday evening, mandatory evacuation orders had been issued for parts of nearly every county on the state’s eastern seaboard from Palm Beach to Nassau.

Gov. Ron DeSantis urged people to heed those orders from local authorities.

“Get out now while you have time or there’s fuel available, and you’ll be safe on the roads,” DeSantis said.

Several tolls had been suspended along major roadways to ease evacuations, including roads in and around Jacksonville such as the First Coast Expressway and the Interstate 295 express lane.

State officials also kept a close watch on health care facilities in the potential path of the storm. Residents from 93 assisted living facilities and nursing homes were moved, and seven hospitals were evacuated along the coast. An eighth hospital, in Martin County, was partially evacuated as well.

Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center warned large swaths of Florida to remain vigilant for dangerous conditions. A storm surge warning, meant to warn residents of “life-threatening inundation,” was in effect for all of Florida’s east coast north of Lantana. Even as far north as South Carolina’s Santee River, residents could expect four to seven feet of storm surge in the coming days, the Hurricane Center said.

A hurricane warning was issued for most all of Florida’s east coast north of Jupiter inlet. That means residents within that area should plan for hurricane conditions. Tropical storm conditions could be felt in southeast Florida as soon as Monday night, the Hurricane Center said.

Those warnings have Florida’s power companies bracing for impact. About 6,500 Duke Energy Florida crew members from as far away as Canada were mobilized Monday to help restore power in the state after the storm, ranging from line technicians to employees who dig holes for new utility poles.

The utility, which serves much of Pinellas County, has a service territory that stretches east to Cocoa Beach and down to the northern tip of Lake Okeechobee.

Catherine Stempien, president of Duke Energy’s Florida operations, said the company expects the greatest impact for its customers in Volusia, Seminole, Osceola and Orange counties.

However, the path of the storm remains a big question mark.

Residents should prepare for the worst, meteorologist Jeff Masters of the IBM-owned Weather Underground said Monday.

“Look at the cone. If you’re in the cone, you’re in danger of a direct strike,” Masters said.

Cities such as Cocoa Beach, Daytona Beach and Jacksonville were all within that so-called cone of uncertainty as of the Hurricane Center’s 8 p.m. briefing.

Dorian’s effects were sure to be felt well inland as well. Late Monday, Walt Disney World announced it would close its theme parks early Tuesday. And at Tampa International Airport, officials said 25 flights had been cancelled Monday and Tuesday.

The storm is expected to edge dangerously close to Florida’s east coast as a major hurricane with winds exceeding 110 miles per hour sometime late Tuesday, the Hurricane Center briefing said. Then, it will likely head north-northeast toward Georgia and the Carolinas.

But until it does that, Tampa Bay-area officials said they wouldn’t take any chances. Pinellas and Hillsborough county officials said they would keep emergency operations centers at least partially open, while Pasco and Hernando county emergency officials remained in monitoring mode.

Public schools remained closed Tuesday in all four counties, and officials all over the Tampa Bay area seemed primed for action in the event of an unexpected brush with Dorian later in the week.

“We are still waiting for this thing to take a northern turn,” Hillsborough County spokesman Chris Wilkerson said.

Times staff writers Malena Carollo, Josh Fiallo and Caitlin Johnston and Times/Herald staff writers Elizabeth Koh and Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.




2019 Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Guide

HURRICANE SEASON IS HERE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane

PREPARE YOUR STUFF: Get your documents and your data ready for a storm

BUILD YOUR KIT: The stuff you’ll need to stay safe — and comfortable — for the storm

PROTECT YOUR PETS: Your pets can’t get ready for a storm. That’s your job

NEED TO KNOW: Click here to find your evacuation zone and shelter

What Michael taught the Panhandle and Tampa Bay

What the Panhandle’s top emergency officials learned from Michael

‘We’re not going to give up.’ What a school superintendent learned from Michael

What Tampa Bay school leaders fear most from a storm

Tampa Bay’s top cops fear for those who stay behind

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