As chances increased for a direct hit from a Category 3 Hurricane Dorian over Labor Day weekend in Volusia and Flagler counties, local residents, government officials and would-be vacationers began a mad scramble Wednesday.
Many residents immediately began heeding warnings to stock up, emptying store shelves of batteries and water bottles. Local cities began preparing sand bag locations. And visitors began canceling hotel reservations.
Throughout the day Wednesday the forecast continued to look ominous. At one point, the National Hurricane Center's forecast track map showed Dorian making a direct landfall over Volusia and Brevard counties on Monday, with winds of more than than 110mph, storm surge, high tides and torrential rainfall. Later in the day the track dropped just a little to the south, but still leaving Volusia and Flagler counties in the path of some of the worst potential winds and rain.
"We're praying for it to decide to turn east and go back toward the ocean, but that doesn't look very likely," Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly said in an afternoon news conference.
Dorian grew in size and strength Wednesday, becoming a hurricane as it crossed over the island of St. Thomas, clocking sustained wind speeds of 82 mph, with gusts of more than 110 mph. A more northward than expected path to the open ocean gave Puerto Rico and Hispaniola a break but allowed Dorian to begin strengthening earlier than expected and over warm, open water.
The hurricane center continued to emphasize its 175-200 mile margin of error in forecast track at four and five days ahead of landfall. Nearly the entire state and the Georgia coastline are within the potential path for the center of the storm on Monday, but the forecast had little good news for residents here or elsewhere along Florida's east coast.
The chances for tropical storm force winds to begin arriving as early as Saturday afternoon had increased to 50-70% in Volusia and Flagler counties. Chances for hurricane-force winds had increased to 20-30%.
Dorian continued moving northwest near 13 mph, a track expected to continue for the next day or so, taking Dorian over the open ocean east of the Bahamas. Hurricane-force winds extended up to 20 miles to the north and east and tropical storm-force winds extend up to 80 miles east of the center, the hurricane center said.
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Sandbag InformationHow to stay informedFlaglercounty.org/emergency_informationVolusia.org/emergencyLocal emergency management officials began regular conference calls with the Florida Division of Emergency Management and the National Weather Service to plan the preparation for and response to the storm.
Gov. Ron DeSantis urged residents statewide to prepare and declared a statewide state of emergency to facilitate cooperation among state, local and federal agencies.
In Volusia County, Emergency Management Director Jim Judge spent Wednesday in meetings and on conference calls with local school officials, state officials and the hurricane center and weather service.
"There's still a 200-mile margin of error with the current forecast," said Judge. "It could go to the south or to the north or come in right on top of us."
If Dorian remains on track for a nearby landfall, decisions about sheltering and evacuations will be made by Friday, Judge said. "We're watching when it's going to make landfall and looking at the arrival of tropical storm-force winds and that dictates our protective actions."
The county and Volusia County Schools have six special needs shelters, he said. "We would pull the trigger on all of those."
Announcements about shelters and evacuations also could come by Friday in Flagler County, said Jonathan Lord, the county's Emergency Management Director.
"The center of it is very focused on Central Florida," Lord said. "It's still too early to predict what those impacts are going to be.
"Make sure your disaster kits are stocked up. If you haven't already done so go to the store tonight," said Lord, urging residents not to wait for the weekend to buy supplies.
If the storm stays on a course for a local landfall as a Category 2 or 3 hurricane, Lord said it's likely the county would ask residents living on the barrier island and east of Interstate 95 to evacuate.
It doesn't help that Dorian is arriving on a weekend with already higher than normal tides because of the new moon, he said. And a direct landfall would increase the risk for storm surge and erosion on local beaches.
Many local residents had already made their trips to stock up on hurricane essentials, such as water, batteries, flashlights and canned foods.
Fernando Santiago, an employee at Publix on Granada Boulevard in Ormond Beach, was refilling the water shelves every half hour.
"I'm trying to get everything we have out here," he said as a line of shoppers piled up on the drink aisle. "We still have some in the back but it's going so quick they are just coming in and coming out."
Julie Herring made a trip to Publix during her lunch break after seeing a notification about the storm at 11 a.m. Decked out in pink scrubs, she lifted two 24 cases of water bottles into her cart.
"I'm trying not to panic," Herring said, explaining this is not her first hurricane. "We've got everything else like generators and flashlights. We just need the general food and water."
It's a different story for Gary Sternberg, recently retired from Wisconsin. But the lack of hurricane experience didn't seem to phase him as he filled his cart at Walmart in Ormond Beach with bottled water, canned soup and canned meats.
Sternberg wanted to get his supplies before the rush, and it's a good thing he did. Walking through the aisles, canned goods, drinks and flashlights were thinning out leaving empty spaces and boxes in their wake. Employees rushed up and down the water aisle, refilling shelves.
Ormond Beach resident Lakisha Anita tried to grab as many Gatorade bottles as she could, overflowing her cart.
"It's primarily to replenish us," Anita said, explaining she'd be housing her disabled brother and 15-year-old son. "I've gone through Matthew and Irma," she said. "I'm ready."
On the beaches, Labor Day is normally a sold-out weekend for area hotels, but Dorian quickly turned that upside down, said Bob Davis, president and CEO of the Lodging & Hospitality Association of Volusia County.
"(Hotel room) cancellations are coming in droves," Davis said. "It will not be a good weekend."
Even if the storm doesn't come, "the weekend is finished," he said. "The issue is always if there is going to be rain, if there's going to be a storm, that the weekend is done. The impact a storm has is tremendous."
People who live in other states, in general, do not understand the geography of our state, he said. "If they hear a storm is coming in one part of the state, they avoid Florida altogether."
Staff writers Jewell Tomazin and Nikki Ross contributed to this report.
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