Dorian nears U.S. as mega-storms become yearly threat

By Daniel Cusick, Thomas Frank | 09/03/2019 07:04 AM EDT

Hurricane Dorian could be the fifth major storm to threaten the United States in three years, driving home scientists’ warnings that climate change is shaping powerful tropical systems.

Hurricane Dorian as seen yesterday from the International Space Station.

Hurricane Dorian as seen yesterday from the International Space Station. Christina H. Koch/NASA

Hurricane Dorian could be the fifth major storm to threaten the United States in three years, driving home scientists’ warnings that climate change is shaping powerful tropical systems.

Dorian is expected to sweep near the Florida coast as a Category 4 or 3 storm later today, but it will be remembered as one of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes in history. The deadly storm bore down on the Bahamas over the weekend with sustained winds of 185 mph.

Yesterday, Dorian stalled out over Grand Bahama, lashing the 50,000-resident island with rain and damaging winds before moderating to a strong Category 4 storm in the afternoon. By 11 p.m. EDT, the National Hurricane Center measured sustained winds of 130 mph.


Dorian killed at least five people in the Abaco Islands in the northern Bahamas, Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Minnis announced yesterday afternoon. He said the storm was an unprecedented event in the independent British commonwealth of 400,000 people.

"I just want to say, as a physician, I’ve been trained to withstand many things, but never anything like this," Minnis said.

As with Hurricane Harvey in 2017, Dorian’s eyewall stalled out for hours yesterday, exacerbating wind damage and severe flooding in the Bahamas. The storm’s erratic behavior was consistent with what scientists say future storms will look like in a warming climate.

"The environment for all such storms has changed because of climate change," Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s Climate Analysis Section, said in an email.

"The case can be readily made that all storms are affected, but each responds differently," he added, noting the contrast between the slow-moving Harvey in 2017 and Hurricane Michael, which ripped through the Florida Panhandle in October last year.

In fact, five of the 10 strongest Atlantic storms have occurred since 2016, according to NOAA. They are Dorian, Michael, Maria, Irma and Matthew. All packed winds of at least 157 mph, and each caused tens of billions of dollars in damage, according to NOAA and the Insurance Information Institute. Maria, Irma and Michael were Category 5 storms when they struck the United States; Matthew was a Category 5 as it entered the Caribbean but weakened substantially by the time it made landfall in South Carolina.

Scientists have warned that hurricane intensity will rise over the next century as ocean waters warm, providing more energy to tropical systems as they move toward land. Research since 2017 has borne out such predictions, with larger, wetter and more destructive hurricanes occurring almost annually.

It remains to be seen how Dorian will stack up against other recent mega-storms. It was tracking west at about 1 mph yesterday afternoon. Forecasters expected the hurricane to shift northward today, resulting in high tides and storm surges along much of Florida’s Atlantic coast.

"Water levels could begin to rise well in advance of the arrival of strong winds," the National Hurricane Center in Miami said last night. "The surge will be accompanied by large and destructive waves." By this evening, the storm will "move dangerously close" to Florida before tracking north toward the barrier islands of Georgia and South Carolina, the center said.

Officials remained concerned that a slow-moving eyewall could threaten tens of millions of people and billions of dollars in property.

"We are in a situation where the storm is stalling very close to our coast. It is going to make a movement, and the movement that it makes is going to have a lot of impact on Floridians," Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said during a news conference from the State Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee.

Surge warnings remained in effect from Lantana, Fla., to the Savannah River, including President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach.

Former Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long told "Face the Nation" on CBS Sunday that he was concerned about Dorian’s wind intensity and its diminishing "forward speed," similar to what occurred with Harvey.

Harvey remains the second-most expensive hurricane disaster in U.S. history, with losses estimated at $125 billion. Only Hurricane Katrina in 2005 exceeds it with $161 billion in damages, according to NOAA’s Office for Coastal Management.

Republican Sen. Rick Scott, the former two-term Florida governor and a longtime climate change skeptic, acknowledged in a "Fox News Sunday" interview that climate warming is contributing to hurricane intensity.

"We know the climate’s changing, and we know our storms seem to be getting bigger," Scott told Fox’s Chris Wallace. "The last four years as governor, I had four of them. And now, we have them my first year out. … We don’t know what the cause is — but we’ve got to react to it. … We’ve put money into dealing with things like sea-level rise. … We’ve got to continue to figure this out."

FEMA deployed emergency teams to Georgia and South Carolina and warned in its daily situation report that hurricane conditions were expected to deteriorate in Florida overnight.

"Large swells are affecting the Florida east coast and will spread northward along the southeastern U.S. coast during the next few days, likely to cause life-threatening surf and rip current conditions," the agency said.

In Florida, 19 hospitals, health care facilities and nursing homes were being evacuated, according to FEMA, while mandatory evacuations were ordered in eight counties in Florida, six counties in Georgia and eight counties in South Carolina.

"FEMA is fully engaged here in Florida, and we appreciate that," DeSantis said.

Hurricane Maria, which ravaged Puerto Rico in 2017, remains the deadliest U.S. hurricane in the modern era, contributing directly or indirectly to 3,000 deaths, according to George Washington University researchers. The Trump administration has been widely criticized for a slow and bumbling response to Maria.

Dorian’s arrival renewed some of those concerns, particularly as it relates to FEMA. As of yesterday, the agency was assisting with 71 disasters and emergencies in 37 states and Puerto Rico. That means only 21% of FEMA’s 13,700-person emergency workforce is available for new deployments — the agency’s lowest level since 2017.

The agency has also lacked a permanent administrator since Long’s departure six months ago. Associate Administrator Jeffrey Byard, nominated by Trump in May, awaits confirmation by the Senate.

In Sunday’s CBS interview, Long said, "It’s never ideal to not have a confirmed administrator in the position at FEMA." But he added that Byard and Gaynor are "two of the best emergency managers I’ve ever met, and they’re actually backed up by 20,000 of the most battle-hardened FEMA staff that’s ever existed."