MIAMI – Hurricane Dorian roared into "catastrophic" Category 5 status Sunday as one of the fiercest storms on record, blasting across the Bahamas on an unrelenting march toward the U.S. East Coast.
The National Hurricane Center said the storm was driving sustained winds of 185 mph, with gusts exceeding 200 mph. It made landfall on Abaco Islands in the Bahamas on Sunday afternoon and had crawled to within 185 miles of West Palm Beach, Florida, heading west at about 7 mph.
The storm was expected to turn north, and it remained unclear where landfall might occur along the East Coast. A long stretch of the coast including Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina remained in play.
"Every indication that we have has the turn (north) somewhere, it's just a matter of where it's going to be," said Ken Graham, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami. "But again, with these systems, sometimes they've got a mind of their own."
In Pahokee, Florida, on the east shore of Lake Okeechobee, residents rely on God, shutters and rope to prepare for hurricanes. Mike and Christhie Meister were putting the finishing touches on shutters on their ranch home.
"Some people around here don't take it seriously," Christhie Meister said. "Our biggest concern is the lake. ... I'm freaking out."
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The storm was forecast to continue across Grand Bahama Island Sunday night and Monday. Storm surge in some areas of the Bahamas was expected to exceed 10 feet, posing "serious threat to both life and property across much of the northern Bahamas," AccuWeather Meteorologist Brandon Buckingham said.
The slow pace of the storm meant some areas could be drenched by up to two feet of rain, adding to the damage, Buckingham said. The Bahamas Labour Ministry warned businesses that "laws regarding price gouging and price hoarding will be scrupulously enforced" over the next several days.
Hurricane Andrew in 1992 is the only Category 5 hurricane ever to pass through the Bahamas, AccuWeather said. "Right now, it's the strongest storm that we've ever recorded in history in modern times in the Bahamas area, so this is a very dangerous situation," Graham said.
In the U.S., the hurricane center issued hurricane and storm surge watches for more than 200-miles of Florida's east coast, from north of Deerfield Beach to the Volusia/Brevard County Line. A Storm Surge Watch has also been issued from north of Deerfield Beach to the Volusia/Brevard County Line.
A mandatory evacuation order for parts of Martin County was rescinded. A similar order for Brevard County's barrier island was postponed for by 24 hours, to 8 a.m. Monday, although shelters began opening at 5 p.m. Sunday.
Category 5 is the strongest rating and includes only hurricanes with sustained winds of at least 157 mph. Meteorologist Ryan Maue tweeted that, if the scale was extrapolated, Category 6 should start at 182 mph.
Forecasters say Dorian's sustained hurricane winds rank it among the most powerful storms ever recorded in the Atlantic. And it's still strengthening. Philip Klotzbach, a hurricane expert and meteorologist at Colorado State University, said Dorian has the strongest winds this far north in the Atlantic east of Florida on record.
Dorian is powerful but compact. Satellite images portray the hurricane as a relatively small feature, with hurricane-force winds "only" extending out from the center by about 30 miles, while tropical storm-force winds extend outward from the center of the hurricane by about 105 miles, AccuWeather said. That's only about half of what is average for a hurricane.
President Donald Trump visited FEMA headquarters and held a conference call with governors and emergency management officials across the Southeast.
"Americans are strong determined and resilient and we will support each other," Trump said Sunday. "We will work very hard to minimize the effect of whatever is coming at us."
Bacon reported from McLean, Va. Contributing: Michael Braun and Frank Gluck, Fort Myers News-Press; Amber Roberson, Tallahassee Democrat; Dan DeLuca, Treasure Coast Newspapers
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Hurricane Dorian update: Storm strengthens to Category 5 status