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Hurricane Dorian is a Category 3 “major hurricane” just off the coast of the Carolinas

A worst-case scenario played out in the Bahamas. Landfall in the US is still possible.

A woman takes a picture of graffiti on a plywood board tacked up due to the impending arrival of a hurricane that reads, “Go away, Hurricane Dorian,” with the names of other hurricanes — Flo, Irma, Maria — crossed out.
A woman makes a photo of a boarded-up hotel on September 4, 2019, in Charleston, South Carolina.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images

On Monday, Hurricane Dorian slammed into the Abacos Islands in the Bahamas as an incredibly powerful Category 5 hurricane, with howling winds in excess of 185 mph and gusts up to 220 mph. The storm brought with it a surge — coastal flooding — of 18-to-23 feet above normal tide.

Dorian is estimated to be the second-most-powerful hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean and ties the record for the most-powerful storm to make landfall, according to the National Weather Service. Preliminary reports from the Abacos Islands show extreme devastation.

The storm weakened slightly and was (very slowly) moving through Grand Bahama Island on Monday, with winds gusting over 200 mph and 18-to-23 feet of coastal flooding. Plus, the forward motion of the storm nearly stalled, moving west at just 1 mph. The slower a storm moves, the more time it has to destroy communities in its path; it’s a worst-case scenario for a hurricane. The storm spent more than 40 hours directly above the island — 15 of which were at Category 5 status. More than 20 people have been reported dead due to the storm and the Red Cross estimates 13,000 homes have been severely damaged or destroyed.

Remarkably, the storm just cleared the Bahamas Tuesday, after lingering over Grand Bahama for more than 41 hours. After, it started to turn north, parallel to Florida’s coast.

As of Thursday morning, the storm was off the coast of South Carolina, sustaining 115 mph winds, making it a Category 3 “major” hurricane. (Major hurricanes are Category 3 and higher.) It’s still a dangerous situation, and landfall along the coast of the Carolinas is still possible.

A chart describing storms labeled Category 1 (winds up to 95 miles per hour, isolated injuries) through Category 5 (winds above 155 mph, extreme flooding). Zachary Crockett/Vox

“On the forecast track, the center of Dorian will continue to move close to the coast of South Carolina today, and then move near or over the coast of North Carolina tonight and Friday,” the National Hurricane Center (NHC) reports.

Here’s the latest forecast map from the NHC. As you can see, Dorian is hugging the coast, bringing wind, rain, and storm surge flooding to many areas. “Life-threatening storm surge and dangerous winds are expected along portions of the coasts of South Carolina and North Carolina, and portions of southeast Virginia and the southern Chesapeake Bay, regardless of the exact track of Dorian’s center,” the NHC advises.

Right now, almost all of the Atlantic Coast from South Carolina to North Carolina is under a hurricane warning, and tornados are possible. A tropical storm warning has been issued for much of Virginia’s coast as well There’s even a tropical storm watch in place for Cape Cod, Massachusetts, as the storm may be offshore there by Saturday. (Watches mean storm conditions are possible; warnings mean they’re imminent.) You can see all the watches and warnings on the NHC site.

The NHC warns that dangerous conditions are expected regardless of the exact path of Dorian’s core. It’s a very large storm. Dorian’s hurricane-force winds extend 60 miles outward from its eye, bringing with them rough surf, coastal flooding, high winds, and rain. Tropical storm-force winds extend 195 miles from the center. Even small deviations to the forecast track can bring increasingly dangerous conditions onshore.

The risks of a major hurricane extend well beyond the wind. The storm could bring several inches of rain or more for parts of Florida and the Southeast. The latest rain forecast calls for 10-to-15 inches of rain possible throughout the Carolinas. “This rainfall may cause life-threatening flash floods,” the NHC advises.

There’s also the threat of storm surge, or coastal flooding. This is when the winds of a hurricane push water onshore. That surge may reach 8 feet in some areas. To prepare, evacuation orders have been issued for many costal areas. Charleston, South Carolina, might even see a record storm surge, with an 8.5-foot-high tide flood forecast for the city. “[Storm surge] is a life-threatening situation,” the NHC advises.

“The surge will be accompanied by large and destructive waves,” the NHC warns. “Surge-related flooding depends on how close the center of Dorian comes to the Florida east coast, and can vary greatly over short distances.”

Here are the key messages the National Hurricane Center wants the public to know:

1. Life-threatening storm surge and dangerous winds are expected along portions the coasts of South Carolina and North Carolina, and portions of southeast Virginia and the southern Chesapeake Bay, regardless of the exact track of Dorian’s center. Water levels could rise well in advance of the arrival of strong winds. Residents in these areas should follow advice given by local emergency officials.

2. Flash flooding will become increasingly likely across the eastern Carolinas today. There is a high risk of flash flooding over coastal sections of the Carolinas where life-threatening flash flooding is expected.

Remember: Forecasts can change. And for many communities, there’s still time to prepare.

How to follow Dorian:

  • The National Hurricane Center has a page updating every few hours with the latest watches and warnings for Dorian. Check it out.
  • Follow the National Hurricane Center on Twitter.
  • Follow the Capital Weather Gang’s Twitter account. These folks tend to live-tweet storm updates.
  • Here’s a Twitter list of weather experts, who will give you up-to-the-second forecasts and warnings.