(Bloomberg) -- As Hurricane Dorian threatens to batter the Bahamas, the forecast for Florida has improved even as the situation for North Carolina is beginning to look grim.
Forecasters have growing confidence that Dorian, with winds of 150 miles (241 kilometers) per hour, could turn away from Florida Monday. But due to its size and its close approach a tropical storm watch has been issued from Deerfield Beach to Sebastian Inlet in Florida, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said in a 5 p.m. New York time advisory.
"The forecast for Florida is improving but nosediving for North and South Carolina," Jim Rouiller chief meteorologist at the Energy Weather Group outside Philadelphia, said late Saturday. "They will probably have to deal with a Category 2 or 3. They are under the gun now."
Rouiller said for Florida to be in the clear Dorian has to make that crucial turn Monday.
"It is like the 800-pound gorilla in the china shop," Rouiller said. "I will just wait until the gorilla makes its way out the front door."
Dorian, one of five storms to form in the Atlantic this year, menaced the U.S. Virgin Islands earlier this week and is about to batter the Bahamas with a storm surge that could reach 15 feet (4.6 meters) above tide levels and 10 to 15 inches of rain. The Category 4 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale was thought to be aimed at Florida's east coast, But more forecast models now predict it will turn north up the coast, possibly even making a landfall in eastern North Carolina Wednesday or Thursday, Rouiller said.
"A couple of days ago we were worried it was going to stall over Florida and now it appears as though it is going to stall over the Bahamas," said Steve Goldstein, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's liaison to FEMA. "That's a bad situation for the Bahamas."
The storm was located 355 miles east of West Palm Beach, Florida, as of 5 p.m. New York time. Its winds could reach 155 mph overnight, which would put it on the cusp of becoming a Category 5, or the strongest hurricane on the scale.
At a Saturday morning press conference, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said the latest forecasts appeared good for the state, but he encouraged Floridians not to let their guard down. He said a "bump in one direction or the other" could yet change the likelihood of impact.
"You're still looking at significant impacts even if the storm remains hugging the coast," DeSantis said. Storm surges and flooding remained a serious risk, in part because the storm coincides with a periodic event known as king tides, especially high tides which frequently cause flooding in South Florida even on sunny days.
Florida's Brevard and Martin Counties on Friday ordered mandatory evacuations for residents of their barrier island communities on the state's east coast, starting Sunday. Palm Beach, St. Lucie, Osceola, Glades and Hendry Counties have all called for voluntary evacuations. The latter three focused their calls on those residing in mobile homes and low-lying areas.
Even if it turns northward off Florida's shores, it could still get close to some of the state's key infrastructure. Its current projected turn would bring it close to the St. Lucie nuclear power station, home to two nuclear reactors owned by Nextera Energy Inc.'s subsidiary Florida Power & Light.
There's an 80% chance Dorian will miss Florida and a 50% chance it spares the U.S. a direct hit completely, said Todd Crawford, chief meteorologist with the Weather Co. in Andover, Massachusetts.
Once the storm approaches the mainland, "even if the center doesn't make landfall, Atlantic coastal regions of Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas are still expected to feel the impact of Dorian, with multiple hours of tropical storm force and potentially hurricane-force winds, excessive rainfall, and damaging storm surge north of the storm center," Crawford said in an email.
In 2016, Hurricane Matthew veered away from Florida without a landfall but still left massive destruction in Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina from torrential rains. Even a glancing blow could cost upwards to $7 billion in damage, Chuck Watson, a modeler with Enki Research, said on his blog.
"Don't make any assumptions, remain vigilant and be prepared," Governor DeSantis said at the press conference Saturday. "You don't want to over-read these tracks."
Dorian could also make landfall in the eastern Carolinas Wednesday or Thursday and rake eastern New England with rain by the end of the week, said Brett Rathbun, a meteorologist with AccuWeather Inc. in State College, Pennsylvania.
'Cone of Uncertainty'
The storm could get close to President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach. even if it doesn't make landfall. Trump canceled a planned trip to Poland this weekend because of the storm.
DeSantis activated 2,500 Florida National Guard troops, and 1,500 more have been told to be prepared, according to a press release Saturday. Dozens of school districts and colleges have announced they'll close at least through the end of the day Tuesday.
The governor's office also said that tolls would be lifted in relevant areas to speed traffic if and when evacuations are ordered. Meanwhile, the Florida Highway Patrol is escorting fuel trucks to get supplies where they are needed.
The hurricane center is tracking two other potential storms in the Atlantic. One, near Cabo Verde off Africa, has a 60% chance of becoming a tropical system in the next five days. The second near the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico has a 30% chance.
To map assets in Hurricane Dorian's path, click here
--With assistance from Sharon Cho, Mark Chediak, David Baker, Will Wade, Todd Shields, Josh Wingrove and Alyza Sebenius.
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