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Every single county in Florida has declared a state of emergency as Hurricane Dorian, which picked up strength after largely missing Puerto Rico, barrels toward the entire state.
Had Dorian, expected to make landfall at a Category 4 storm, hit Puerto Rico or run into the mountains of the Dominican Republic, it likely would have weakened. That didn’t happen. Plus, it could make landfall during one of this season’s two expected “king tides,” super-high tides that regularly cause flooding in Florida on sunny days. Conditions have lined up for Dorian to bring intense winds and widespread flooding to the large swaths of the Florida peninsula.
“The path that it took was almost the perfect track for it to maintain its strength,” said Craig Fugate, who served as FEMA administrator under President Barack Obama.
Dorian has proven compact and unpredictable, and forecasters have had trouble pinning down exactly where it’ll make landfall. Right now, it’s expected to hit Florida’s southeastern coast on Monday afternoon, slow down, and then turn north and west along the full length of the state. It’s growing into a slow-moving, wet storm, one that could linger over the state, dump rain up to 15 inches of rain and cause widespread flooding and power outages as it knocks out trees and power lines.
On Friday, Dorian was still a Category 3 storm, with sustained winds at 115 mph. It was moving slowly through the Atlantic, north of the Dominican Republic, and heading toward the Bahamas, which is also bracing for impact. A Category 4 storm hasn’t hit Florida's east coast since 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, which was blamed for 61 deaths and $27 billion in damage.
"The path that it took was almost the perfect track for it to maintain its strength."
Some hurricanes, like 2017’s Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico that knocked out 80% of the island’s power lines, cause damage due to their high winds; others, like Hurricane Harvey in Houston, are damaging due to heavy rains. Dorian seems poised to be both.
“This storm will be an equal opportunity destroyer: storm surge, wind, and heavy rainfall.” Fugate said. “The other thing you have to watch for are the isolated tornadoes.”
But the storm has been shifty and forecasters expects the expected path of the storm to change before it makes landfall. There’s always a chance that the storm could linger of the Bahamas and lose strength before it reaches Florida. Most forecasts have however been consistently trending toward a slower, wetter storm.
“We can’t tell anyone with certainty that you’re not going to get hit,” Fugate said. “They’re still talking about rainfall in inches. If it slows down anymore, they’re going to be popping that up into feet.”
If Dorian hits during a king tide, it could cause even worse flooding. Parts of South Beach were under about six inches of water on Thursday morning, before the storm even hit after only 15 minutes of rainfall, according to the Miami Herald. The storm could also linger over the coast of Florida for multiple tide cycles, which would cause even more flooding and test Miami’s new flood control systems, which it’s expanded since Irma.
Storms like Dorian are also expected to occur more frequently as the climate warms. As the planet gets hotter, storms get slower and wetter, driven by warmer water temperatures, according to a study published last year by researchers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And the waters in the Atlantic under Dorian are about 3 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than normal.
“There’s not enough to say that climate is causing the storms to occur, but the one signal that seems to be trending is slower moving storms, much wetter storms, record-setting rainfall storms,” Fugate said.
Correction 8/30 5:02 p.m.: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Dorian would be the biggest hurricane to hit Florida since 1992. It would be the biggest storm to hit the east coast of Florida. The text has been updated.
Cover image: This GOES-16 satellite image taken Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019, at 14:20 UTC and provided by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), shows Hurricane Dorian, right, moving over open waters of the Atlantic Ocean. (NOAA via AP)