Hurricane Dorian unleashed significant flooding across the Bahamas on Monday, pummeling the islands with so much wind and water that authorities urged people to find floatation devices and grab hammers to break out of their attics if necessary.
The fearsome Category 4 storm slowed almost to a standstill as it shredded roofs, hurled cars and forced even rescue crews to take shelter until the onslaught passed.
Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said on Monday that at least five people have died in the Abaco Islands.
Officials said they received a “tremendous” number of calls from people in flooded homes. A radio station received more than 2,000 distress messages, including reports of a five-month-old baby stranded on a roof and a grandmother with six grandchildren who cut a hole in a roof to escape rising floodwaters. Other reports involved a group of eight children and five adults stranded on a highway and two storm shelters that flooded.
The National Hurricane Center (NHC) said in its latest advisory at 4pm (20:00 GMT) that “extremely dangerous Dorian continues to bring life-threatening conditions” to islands in the Bahamas.
It warned residents not to leave shelters until the eye of the hurricane passes. The storm’s strongest winds are usually close to the eye.
As many as 13,000 homes in the Bahamas may have been destroyed or severely damaged, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said.
Houses in a neighbourhood in Freeport on Grand Bahama Island were engulfed by six feet (1.8 metres) of water. “It looks like they’re boats on top of the water,” said Rosa Knowles-Bain, 61, a resident who fled two days ago to an emergency shelter.
A Reuters witness staying in the hotel at the Abaco Beach Resort on the island of Great Abaco said winds tore off the shutters and part of the roof, and the site was surrounded by a lake of water.
The hurricane, which was downgraded late Monday morning to Category 4 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson Wind Scale, was last over Grand Bahama, packing maximum sustained winds of 145 miles an hour (240 km/h) and moving at two mph (two km/h), the NHC said.
Dorian was expected to remain over Grand Bahama for much of the day and night with “catastrophic” winds and a massive storm surge that could raise water levels by as much as 18 to 23 feet above normal in some areas, the NHC said.
Strong gusts and high surf were already being reported along Florida’s east coast as the hurricane was about 105 miles (170km) from West Palm Beach, the centre said. It added that Dorian would come dangerously close to the state Monday night through Wednesday evening, then move close to the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina on Wednesday night and Thursday.
At the White House, staff members reviewed hurricane planning with state and local officials. US President Donald Trump was being briefed hourly, White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said.
Mandatory evacuations, airport close
Nine counties in Florida have issued mandatory evacuations. These included for parts of Duval County, home to Jacksonville, one of Florida’s two biggest cities, and some areas in Palm Beach County, home to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis urged coastal residents to heed evacuation orders. “Get out now while there’s time and while you have fuel available,” he said in a news conference from the state’s emergency operations centre in Tallahassee.
Among those being evacuated was Sue Watson, a 93-year-old resident of a retirement community in Kissimmee in central Florida.
“I was all set to stay home until they had to turn the water off,” said Watson, who added that she was not worried for her personal safety but hoped the storm spared the retirement community.
The storm was causing havoc for travellers on Florida’s east coast, where some airports and petrol stations were closed.
Delta Air Lines said it cancelled 55 flights scheduled for Monday and Tuesday after airports in Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, Melbourne and Daytona Beach closed.
American Airlines said operations had been suspended at seven airports in Florida and the Bahamas, and a travel alert issued for more than 20 airports including in Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina.
South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster ordered mandatory evacuations for parts of eight coastal counties effective at noon on Monday. More than 830,000 people were under evacuation orders in Charleston and other coastal communities in the state, emergency management officials announced.
Georgia Governor Brian Kemp ordered evacuations in six coastal counties, including all of Savannah’s 150,000 residents, also effective at noon on Monday, Kemp’s office said on Twitter.
Dorian was tied with Gilbert (1988), Wilma (2005) and the 1935 Labor Day hurricane for the second-strongest Atlantic hurricane on record, based on maximum sustained winds. Allen in 1980 was the most powerful, the NHC said.
Scientists have warned that climate change is making hurricanes more intense. As global warming raises the ocean surface temperature, storms gather more energy, which can lead to greater rainfall and stronger winds as they make landfall.
“When scientists put the pieces together, they project that in general, hurricanes will become more intense in a warming world … much like we’ve seen recently with Hurricanes Harvey, Michael and Florence,” the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit science advocacy group, said in a blog post about Hurricane Dorian.