Hurricane Dorian has pounded the northernmost islands of the Bahamas with winds gusting to more than 220mph (355km/h), the biggest storm to hit the Caribbean island chain in modern times.
The “catastrophic” category 5 storm forced the US states of Georgia and Carolina to issue evacuation orders for their coastal communities on Sunday night as the National Hurricane Center warned of storm surges that could reach 18ft to 23ft (5.5m-7m) above normal levels.
On Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas, footage soon emerged of floodwaters reaching halfway up the sides of family homes with parts of the roofs torn off. The island chain’s homes are built to withstand winds of at least 150mph (241km/h). Americans should “pray for the people in the Bahamas”, Donald Trump said from Washington as south-eastern US states looked on nervously.
Bahamian prime minister Hubert Minnis said in a nationally televised news conference that a “monster storm” was battering the region. “This will put us to a test that we’ve never confronted before,” he said. “This is probably the most sad and worst day of my life to address the Bahamian people. I just want to say as a physician I’ve been trained to withstand many things, but never anything like this.”
The National Hurricane Center (NHC) in Miami said Dorian made a second landfall at 2pm US ET (1800 GMT) on Sunday, hitting Great Abaco Island with large waves and winds of 185mph with higher gusts. That was tied for the strongest Atlantic hurricane landfall on record, with the 1935 Labor Day hurricane.
As hundreds hunkered down in schools, churches and other shelters, Bahamian authorities made a last-minute plea for those in low-lying areas to evacuate. Reporters in the Bahamas said hundreds of residents of lower-lying islands, including Grand Cay and Sweeting Cay, had ignored mandatory orders to go.
“Once the winds get to a certain strength we’re not going to to be able to respond,” Don Cornish, head of the Bahamas national emergency management agency, warned in a pre-storm briefing. “We may not have the resources to come after persons who are in harm’s way.”
The NHC said Dorian was moving west at 7mph, with “catastrophic conditions” expected across Grand Bahama later on Sunday.
“It’s going to be really, really bad for the Bahamas,” Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach told the Associated Press, adding: “Abaco is going to get wiped.”
Hurricane hunter crews from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa) flying into the storm’s eyewall recorded winds gusting at more than 200mph, while an expected slowing in Dorian’s progress raised the prospect of the system stalling over the Bahamas for up to 48 hours and dumping up to 30 inches (76cm) of rain.
“It is not very often that we measure such strong winds,” NHC expert Lixion Avila said in an advisory issued at 5pm ET.
On Sunday morning, a significant change to the forecast by NHC experts brought the cyclone much closer to Florida’s south-eastern coast by Monday and Tuesday, prompting new hurricane and tropical storm force watches from just north of Miami to Sebastian inlet, 100 miles north of West Palm Beach. Dorian’s predicted path would then take it north, skirting the US coast towards Georgia and the Carolinas.
South Carolina’s governor, Henry McMaster, ordered the evacuation of his state’s entire coastline from Monday at noon.
Though Avila said later that “the official track forecast does not show landfall”, the forecaster added that “a small deviation to the left of the track could bring the intense core of the hurricane its dangerous winds closer to or on to the Florida coast”.
In Florida, some observers likened life at the mercy of the slow but unpredictable storm to being stalked by a turtle.
“Since Dorian is forecast to slow down and turn northward as it approaches the coast,” Richard Pasch, senior adviser at the NGC, wrote in a morning advisory, “life-threatening storm surge and and dangerous hurricane-force winds are still possible along portions of the Florida east coast by the middle part of this week.
“There is an increasing risk of string winds and dangerous storm surge along the coasts of Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina later this week.”
Trump sowed confusion earlier when he said incorrectly that Alabama would be hit by the storm, forcing the National Weather Service to issue an update. He later repeated the mistake at a press conference. He also repeated his claim that he was not sure he had “ever even heard of a category 5” hurricane.
Palm Beach officials have announced evacuation orders for coastal areas and mobile homes and said shelters were being opened because of the risk of a closer brush with Dorian than had been predicted. Counties further north, including Martin and Brevard, began evacuations on Saturday.
The increasing strength of the storm makes this the fourth consecutive year that at least one Atlantic cyclone has reached category 5, according to the NHC. Hurricane Matthew in 2016 followed a similar offshore track to Dorian’s expected path yet still caused hundreds of billions of dollars in damage and 47 deaths in the US from wind, storm surge and significant inland flooding.
In 2017 Irma and Maria tore through the Caribbean, the latter blamed for more than 3,000 deaths in Puerto Rico, and last year Hurricane Michael wrecked areas of the Florida Panhandle that are still struggling to recover.
Kevin McAleenan, the acting secretary of homeland security, told ABC’s This Week the president would lead “really a whole of government effort, and the president is going to make sure that we’re on the same page, that we’re tracking this, and that we’re going to be ready”.
The Trump administration recently ordered a transfer of funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema), which has been criticised for its reaction to recent hurricanes, particularly in Puerto Rico.
Kevin McAleenan, the acting secretary of homeland security, said no funds had yet been transferred but insisted that “any potential transfers will not impact our ability to respond to this storm or any other storms in the rest of the hurricane season”.
The Associated Press contributed to this report