MIAMI (AP) — Hurricane Dorian is strengthening as it moves west toward the Bahamas and Florida.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami says maximum sustained winds increased Saturday morning to 145 mph (230 kph), up from 140 mph (220 kph).
As of about 8 a.m. EDT Saturday, the Category 4 storm was 280 miles (450 kilometers) east of the northwestern Bahamas and 445 miles (715 kilometers) east of West Palm Beach, Florida. The storm was traveling west at 12 mph (19 kph).
The hurricane center says the core of Dorian is expected to be near or over the northwestern Bahamas on Sunday and near the Florida east coast late Monday. Strong winds and life-threatening storm surge are also possible along the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina by the middle of next week.
Millions of people in Florida, along with the state’s Walt Disney World and President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, are in the potential crosshairs of the hurricane. Forecasters say Dorian, which had top sustained winds of 140 mph (225 kph) Friday night, will threaten the Florida peninsula late Monday or early Tuesday.
But the National Hurricane Center in Miami cautioned that its meteorologists remain uncertain whether Dorian would make a devastating direct strike on the state’s east coast or inflict a glancing blow. Some of the more reliable computer models predicted a late turn northward that would have Dorian hug the Florida coast.
“There is hope,” Weather Underground meteorology director Jeff Masters said.
The faint hope of dodging Dorian’s fury came Friday, even as the storm ratcheted up from a menacing Category 3 hurricane to an even more dangerous Category 4. That raised fears Dorian could become the most powerful hurricane to hit Florida’s east coast in nearly 30 years.
National Hurricane Center projections showed Dorian hitting roughly near Fort Pierce, some 70 miles (113 kilometers) north of Mar-a-Lago, then running along the coastline as it moved north. But forecasters cautioned that the storm’s track remains still highly uncertain and even a small deviation could put Dorian offshore — or well inland.
Trump has declared a state of emergency in Florida and authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster-relief efforts. He told reporters that “Mar-a-Lago can handle itself” and that he is more worried about Florida.
“This is big and is growing, and it still has some time to get worse,” Julio Vasquez said at a Miami fast-food joint next to a gas station that had run out of fuel. “No one knows what can really happen. This is serious.”
As Dorian closed in, Labor Day weekend plans were upended. Major airlines began allowing travelers to change their reservations without fees. The big cruise lines began rerouting their ships. Disney World and Orlando’s other resorts found themselves in the storm’s projected path.
Still, with Dorian days away and its track uncertain, Disney and other major resorts held off announcing any closings, and Florida authorities ordered no immediate mass evacuations.
“Sometimes if you evacuate too soon, you may evacuate into the path of the storm if it changes,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said.
But some counties announced mandatory evacuations ahead of time on Friday. Brevard County and Martin County officials said residents of barrier islands, mobile homes and low-lying areas would be under a mandatory evacuation order beginning Sunday morning. The Brevard County order includes the Kennedy Space Center. Indian River County officials said they will recommend residents of its barrier island voluntarily evacuate once hurricane warnings are issued.
Homeowners and businesses rushed to cover their windows with plywood. Supermarkets ran out of bottled water, and long lines formed at gas stations, with some fuel shortages reported.
At a Publix supermarket in Cocoa Beach, Ed Ciecirski of the customer service department said the pharmacy was extra busy with people rushing to fill prescriptions. The grocery was rationing bottled water and had run out of dry ice.
“It’s hairy,” he said.
Early Saturday, Dorian was centered 470 miles (755 kilometers) east of West Palm Beach. It was moving northwest at 12 mph (17 kph). Forecasters warned that its slow movement means Florida could face a prolonged wallop of wind, storm surge and torrential rain.
Coastal areas of the southeastern United States could get 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 centimeters) of rain, with 18 inches (46 centimeters) in some places, triggering life-threatening flash floods, the hurricane center said.
The hurricane center’s advisory released at 5 a.m. Saturday also warned that the “risk of strong winds and life-threatening storm surge” during the middle of next week is increasing along Georgia and South Carolina’s coasts.
Also imperiled were the Bahamas, where canned food and bottled water were disappearing quickly from shelves and the sound of hammering echoed across the islands as people boarded up their homes. Dorian was expected to hit the northwestern part of the Bahamas by Sunday with the potential for life-threatening storm surge that could raise water levels 15 feet (5 meters) above normal.
“Do not be foolish and try to brave out this hurricane,” Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said. “The price you may pay for not evacuating is your life.”
Associated Press writers Seth Borenstein and Michael Balsamo in Washington; Danica Coto in San Juan, Puerto Rico; Marcia Dunn in Cape Canaveral, Florida; Freida Frisaro and Marcus Lim in Miami; Mike Schneider in Orlando, Florida; and Bobby Caina Calvan in Tallahassee, Florida, contributed to this report.
For AP’s complete coverage of the hurricane: https://apnews.com/Hurricanes