August 30, 2019 / 10:16 AM / 23 days ago

UPDATE 7-Slowing and strengthening, Hurricane Dorian worries Florida

(Recasts to focus on fear of flooding, Bahama evacuations, adds Fort Pierce mayor comments)

By Zachary Fagenson

MIAMI, Aug 30 (Reuters) - Hurricane Dorian churned toward Florida with more powerful winds and drenching rains on Friday, wreaking havoc on people's Labor Day weekend plans in one of America's biggest vacation destinations.

In the Bahamas, evacuations were underway in the two days before Dorian was expected to bring a life-threatening storm surge of as much as 10 to 15 feet (3 to 4.5 meters) to the northwest of the islands, the National Hurricane Center said.

On Florida's east coast, where Dorian's winds were expected to begin hitting on Monday morning, items ranging from bottled water to plywood were being bought as quickly as they could be restocked. There were reports some gas stations had run out of fuel.

"They’re buying everything and anything that applies to a hurricane, flashlights, batteries, generators," said Amber Hunter, 30, assistant manager at Cape Canaveral's ACE Handiman hardware store.

The Miami-based National Hurricane Center warned that Dorian could further strengthen and batter Florida with winds of over 130 mph( 210 kph). That would put millions of people at risk along with big vacation parks such as Walt Disney World, the NASA launchpads along the Space Coast, and even President Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach.

NHC Director Ken Graham saw a worrying, unpredictable situation for Florida with the hurricane set to hit land somewhere up its east coast.

"Slow is not our friend, the longer you keep this around the more rain we get," said Graham in a Facebook Live video. While it was unclear where the hurricane would make landfall, the results were expected to be devastating: "Big time impacts, catastrophic events, for some areas 140 mph winds, not a good situation," said Graham.

Mindful of that warning, Cocoa Beach Mayor Ben Malik was putting up storm shutters on his Florida home on Friday afternoon and worrying about the flooding Dorian could unleash on his barrier island town.

"It's slowed down, we’re looking at a multiple day event, we were hoping it would just barrel through and leave,” Malik said of forecasts Dorian could sit over Florida for up to two days dumping up to 18 inches (46 cm) of water. "I’m really worried about the amount of rain we’ll be getting."

WEEK'S WORTH OF FOOD

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis urged residents to have at least a week's worth of food, water and medicine.

Fort Pierce Mayor Linda Hudson urged its 46,000 residents who planned to evacuate to go now.

"It's decision time now. Don’t wait until I-95 north and I-75 north and the turnpike are parking lots," said Hudson, who lived through two devastating hurricanes in 2004.

Dorian's course remained unpredictable. One of Florida's last major hurricanes, 2017's Irma, swept up the peninsula, instead of hitting the east coast.

Florida residents like Jamison Weeks, general manager at Conchy Joe's Seafood in Port St. Lucie, planned on staying put.

"I’m planning on boarding up my house this evening," said Weeks. "The mood is a little tense, everybody’s a little nervous and just trying to prepare as best as possible."

In the Bahamas, Freeport's international airport was set to close Friday night and would not open until Sept. 3, amid worries Dorian would slam tourist hotspots Grand Bahama and Abaco on Saturday.

Dorian began on Friday over the Atlantic as a Category 2 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson Wind Scale but strengthened to a Category 3 with sustained winds of 115 miles per hour, the NHC said. It is moving just at 10 miles per hour, giving it more time to intensify before making landfall.

Two thousand National Guard troops will have been mobilized for the hurricane by the end of Friday, with 2,000 more joining them on Saturday, Florida National Guard Major General James Eifert said.

Florida officials also were making sure all nursing homes and assisted living facilities had generators.

Only one in five Florida nursing homes plans to rely on deliveries of temporary generators to keep their air conditioners running if Dorian knocks out power, a state agency said on Friday, short of the standard set by a law passed after a dozen people died in a sweltering nursing home after 2017's Hurricane Irma.

North of Cape Canaveral, the Kennedy Space Center's 400-foot launch tower was dragged inside a towering vehicle assembly building to shelter it from Dorian, according to a video posted by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)-owned space launch center.

Reporting by Zachary Fagenson in Miami, Peter Szekely and Stephanie Kelly in New York, Richard Cowan in Washington, Andrew Hay in New Mexico, Gary McWilliams in Houston and Rebekah F. Ward in Mexico City; writing by Paul Simao; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Grant McCool

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