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Florida leaders watch nervously as Hurricane Dorian continues its uncertain march across Atlantic

Florida officials were left to ask themselves an unanswerable question: Where might Dorian hit next?
Florida Department of Health staffers set up beds at an evacuation shelter for people with special needs, in preparation for Hurricane Dorian, at Dr. David L. Anderson Middle School in Stuart, Fla., Sunday, Sept. 1, 2019. Some coastal areas are under a mandatory evacuation since the path of the storm is still uncertain. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert) [GERALD HERBERT | AP]
Published Sep. 2

Florida began to prepare in earnest for the effects of Hurricane Dorian Sunday, as it continued its grim voyage across the Atlantic Ocean.

The arrangements were familiar. Across the state, toll fees were waived and five counties issued mandatory evacuation notices. Nearly 28,000 lineman mobilized to restore power to any affected areas. Dozens of school districts — including Pinellas, Hillsborough, Hernando and Pasco — announced or maintained previously announced school closures.

In short, the state braced itself. That’s nothing new for Florida.

But the Category 5 storm, which had maximum sustained winds of 185 miles per hour, did offer something novel to the equation for Florida’s leaders Sunday: a bleak demonstration of its destructive power, as it pounded several islands in the Bahamas.

The devastation was so immediately evident Sunday that at a news conference, Bahamian Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis was reduced to tears.

“This is probably the most sad and worst day of my life to address the Bahamian people,” Minnis said. "As a physician, I’ve been trained to withstand many things, but never anything like this.”

Videos posted to social media showed flood waters engulfing some homes in the country’s Abaco Islands, and meteorologists at the National Hurricane Center warned Bahamians not to venture out into the storm.

All of that made for nervous watching on the part of Florida officials, who were left to ask themselves an unanswerable question: Where might Dorian hit next?

"At the end of the day, please prepare because this is a big boy,'' Gov. Ron DeSantis said.

As the constantly changing forecasts of the weekend showed, Dorian has been especially hard to predict. Meteorologist Jeff Masters of the IBM-owned Weather Underground attributed that fact in part due to its slow speed. As of 5 p.m. Sunday, the storm was moving at just five miles per hour through the Bahamas — a snail’s pace even for a monster storm.

The reason Dorian is moving so slowly is because it’s currently trapped between a low-pressure system to the west and a high pressure system to the east, Masters said. These two systems, blowing in opposite directions, are effectively cancelling each other out, causing the storm to inch along the Atlantic.

Meteorologists are confident Dorian will turn north, they’re just not sure when. Predicting Dorian’s potential path essentially means predicting when the storm will reach the western edge of the high-pressure system, at which point it will be blown north by both the clockwise-blowing high pressure system and the counterclockwise-blowing low pressure systems.

To complicate things even further, the storm isn’t very wide, with hurricane-force winds extending about 45 miles from its center, the National Hurricane Center said. (By comparison, Masters said Hurricane Katrina had hurricane force winds extending twice as far from its center.) That means Dorian is a compact monster, and even slight changes in the atmosphere could mean the difference between Florida receiving a direct hit and the state feeling relatively little impact from the storm. For forecasters, the stakes are high.

That’s why officials along Florida’s east coast took no chances Sunday. Martin, Palm Beach, Brevard, St. Lucie and St. Johns counties all issued various levels of evacuation notices, with the most sweeping coming from Palm Beach, Martin and St. Johns. Hundreds of thousands of Floridians were affected by the orders.

Mandatory evacuations in Indian River, Volusia, Duval, Nassau and Brevard counties are set to begin Monday, DeSantis said at a late Sunday briefing. Shelters there will open Monday, including special needs and pet-friendly locations.

President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-lago resort, perhaps the most famous residence in Florida, was in the evacuation zone for Palm Beach County.

Palm Beach officials warned residents to travel west and inland rather than north, given Dorian’s projected path up the coast. They also said residents should shelter within the county, most of which is not covered in the evacuation order.

The National Hurricane Center issued a hurricane warning for the area between the Jupiter Inlet and the Volusia/Brevard County Line — about 150 miles of Florida’s east coast. (A hurricane warning means hurricane conditions are expected somewhere in the area specified by the Hurricane Center.)

Kelly Godsey, of the National Weather Service, said that tropical storm force winds of up to 73 mph are projected to begin between 11 a.m. and 8 p.m. on Monday in Palm Beach, Martin and St. Lucie counties.

A forecast by the Hurricane Center showed the center of the storm passing close to Florida’s east coast Tuesday afternoon.

Federal authorities also cautioned residents in an area from Lantana in Palm Beach County north through much of Volusia County to be on the lookout for life-threatening storm surge in the coming days.

As people begin to heed the evacuation orders, DeSantis said Sunday afternoon he was directing the state Department of Transportation to suspend tolls on Alligator Alley, SR 528 (Beachline), the Sawgrass Expressway (SR 869) and the Florida Turnpike Mainline (SR 91), including the Homestead Extension (SR 821).

After a request from Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings, said he had also approved suspending tolls on SR 417 and SR 429, which the state Department of Transportation was in the process of putting into effect.

In the Tampa Bay area, which was likely as of Sunday night to see little more than some nasty rain from Dorian’s outer bands, officials continued to plan for the worst.

It’s too late, Hillsborough County school officials said, to cancel the countywide mandate to close schools on Tuesday. Local superintendents from all four of the Tampa Bay area’s public school districts — Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties — made that decision last Friday, anticipating that schools would need to be used as temporary shelters and dangerous weather conditions would prevent school buses from operating.

As they watched Dorian’s progress Sunday, officials agreed that keeping schools closed was the “smart, safe decision,” said Hillsborough County Public Schools spokesman Grayson Kamm.

“There are parts of Hillsborough County that are less than 90 miles from the Atlantic Ocean,” Kamm said. “You look at Irma making an unexpected turn, you look at Charley making an unexpected turn – we have to be ready for that here in Hillsborough County.”

School officials have already prepped 19 schools with food, backup generators, and other equipment in the event they’re needed as county shelters, Kamm said. The county’s public works employees also continued work on Sunday to prepare storm drains, sewers and other infrastructure for any heavy rains or storm-related flooding.

There were a few signs that local officials were ramping down their planning efforts somewhat. By Sunday in Hillsborough County and in the City of St. Petersburg, officials had decided to stop handing out sandbags, for example.

But the official line was still that of caution. After a news conference Sunday, Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Les Miller warned residents against complacency.

“Right now, we’re outside the cone of uncertainty, but that storm has not made that turn north that we’re anticipating. In fact, its moved a little bit more to the west,” Miller said. “This is a very slow-moving storm, it’s unpredictable, and it is getting stronger as it stays over warm waters, so we just don’t know what it’s going to do.”

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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