McLEAN'S TOWN CAY, Bahamas (AP) — Hurricane Dorian struck the northern Bahamas on Sunday as a catastrophic Category 5 storm, its 185 mph winds ripping off roofs and tearing down power lines as hundreds hunkered in schools, churches and other shelters.
The second-strongest Atlantic hurricane since 1950, Dorian hit land in Elbow Cay in the Abaco Islands after authorities made last-minute pleas for those in low-lying areas to evacuate. But officials recognized there were not many structures on higher ground on the largely flat archipelago southeast of Florida.
WEATHER RADAR: TRACK HURRICANE DORIAN'S PATH
Millions from Florida to the Carolinas kept a wary eye on the slow-moving Dorian amid indications it would veer sharply northeastward after passing the Bahamas and track up the U.S. Southeast seaboard. But authorities warned that even if its core did not make U.S. landfall and stayed offshore, the potent storm would likely hammer U.S. coastal areas with powerful winds and heavy surf.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami said Dorian's maximum sustained winds at its 12:45 p.m. landfall were 185 mph (295 kph), up from 175 mph (281 kph). It was moving west at 7 mph (11 kph). "Catastrophic conditions" are occurring in The Abaco Islands and expected across Grand Bahama later in the day, the center said.
Dorian's power was second only to Hurricane Allen in 1980, with its 190 mph winds.
"It's going to be really, really bad for the Bahamas," Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach said.
In the northern stretches of the Bahamas archipelago, hotels closed, residents boarded up homes and officials hired boats to move people to bigger islands as Dorian approached.
Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis warned that any "who do not evacuate are placing themselves in extreme danger and can expect a catastrophic consequence."
Still, dozens of people ignored evacuation orders, officials said, and they were warned that they were placing their lives in danger.
"The end could be fatal," said Samuel Butler, assistant police commissioner. "We ask you, we beg you, we plead with you to get to a place of safety."
Bahamas radio station ZNS Bahamas reported that a mother and her child in central Grand Bahama called to say they were sheltering in a closet and seeking help from police.
Silbert Mills, owner of the Bahamas Christian Network, said trees and power lines were torn down in The Abaco Islands and some roads were impassable.
"The winds are howling like we've never, ever experienced before," said Mills, 59, who planned to ride out the hurricane with his family in the concrete home he built 41 years ago in central Abaco.
Among those refusing to leave were 32 people in Sweetings Cay, and a group that sought safety in Old Bahama Bay resort, which officials said was not safe.
Butler said officials were closing certain roads with heavy equipment and warned that those on the other side would be stranded until after Dorian has passed. The government has opened 14 shelters across the Bahamas.
"We cannot stress the amount of devastation and catastrophic impact that Hurricane Dorian is expected to bring," said Shavonne Moxey-Bonamy, the Bahamas chief meteorologist.
Earlier Saturday, small skiffs shuttled between outlying fishing communities and McLean's Town, a settlement of a few dozen homes at the eastern end of Grand Bahama island, about 150 miles (240 kilometers) from Florida's Atlantic coast. Most came from Sweetings Cay, a fishing town of a few hundred about 5 feet (1.5 meters) above sea level.
"We're not taking no chances," said Margaret Bassett, a ferry boat driver for the Deep Water Cay resort. "They said evacuate, you have to evacuate."
But Jack Pittard, a 76-year-old American who has been traveling to the Bahamas for 40 years, said he has decided to ride out the storm in The Abaco Islands. He said it's the first hurricane he will experience in his life.
"There's fear," he said by phone Sunday as it approached. "I'm worried about destruction of property, but I don't believe there's going to be loss of lives here."
Pittard said he battened up his house and is spending the storm in a nearby duplex behind a group of cottages owned by a friend. He noted the ocean is quite deep near where he's staying, and there's a cay that provides protection, so he doesn't expect significant storm surge.
"I'm not afraid of dying here," said Pittard, who lives in Lexington, Kentucky.
Meanwhile, Klotzbach, the hurricane researcher, warned of Dorian's catastrophic strength: "Abaco is going to get wiped."
Over two or three days, the slow-moving hurricane could dump as much as 4 feet (1 meter) of rain, unleash devastating winds and whip up a dangerous storm surge, said private meteorologist Ryan Maue, seconding some of the most reliable computer models.
Government spokesman Kevin Harris said Dorian was expected to affect 73,000 residents and 21,000 homes. Authorities closed airports for The Abaco Islands, Grand Bahama and Bimini, but Lynden Pindling International Airport in the capital of Nassau remained open.
Jeffrey Allen, who lives in Freeport on Grand Bahama, said he had learned after several storms that damage predictions sometimes don't materialize, but he still takes precautions.
"It's almost as if you wait with anticipation, hoping that it's never as bad as they say it will be. However, you prepare for the worst nonetheless," he said.
The Bahamas archipelago is frequently hit by hurricanes. Construction codes require homes to have metal reinforcements for roof beams to withstand winds into the upper limits of a Category 4 hurricane, and compliance is generally tight for residents who can afford it. Risks are higher in poorer communities, which typically have wooden homes and are generally in lower-lying areas.
The slow-crawling storm was predicted to take until Monday afternoon to pass over the Bahamas, and then turn sharply and skirt up the U.S. coast, staying just off Florida and Georgia on Tuesday and Wednesday and then buffeting South Carolina and North Carolina on Thursday.
The National Hurricane Center Sunday morning issued a hurricane watch for Florida's East Coast from Deerfield Beach north to the Volusia and Brevard county line. The same area was also put under a storm surge watch. Lake Okeechobee was put under a tropical storm watch.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis warned residents along the state's densely populated Atlantic coast: "We're not out of the woods yet."
He suspended tolls on the Florida Turnpike and other roads, including Alligator Alley which crosses the state from Fort Lauderdale to Naples, to help keep traffic flowing for those who choose to evacuate.
DeSantis noted some forecast models still bring Dorian close to or even onto the Florida peninsula.
"That could produce life-threatening storm surge and hurricane force winds," DeSantis said. "That cone of uncertainty still includes a lot of areas on the east coast of Florida and even into central and north Florida, so we are staying prepared and remaining vigilant."
Palm Beach County announced a mandatory evacuation for the eastern half of the county as of 1 p.m. Sunday. The evacuation includes mobile homes, substandard housing, low-lying areas prone to flooding and homes along the Intracoastal Waterway and on barrier islands.
For Florida, it's all going to come down to a matter of a handful of miles between relative safety and potential devastation. On Tuesday and Wednesday, Dorian is forecast to be 40 to 50 miles off the Florida with hurricane-force wind speeds extending about 35 miles to the west.
National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham urged residents not to bet on safety just because the specific forecast track has the storm just a bit offshore. Don't focus on the track, he said, but the larger cone of possibility that includes landfall.
Making matters more touch-and-go is that with every new forecast, "we keep nudging (Dorian's track) a little bit to the left" which is closer to the Florida coast, Graham said.
Dorian is a powerful but small hurricane with hurricane force winds Sunday only extending 29 miles to the west, but they are expecting to grow a bit. That makes forecasting the storm's path — either just off the coast or skirting it — delicate and difficult.
President Donald Trump already declared a state of emergency and was briefed about what he called "a very, very powerful hurricane."
"We don't know where it's going to hit but we have an idea, probably a little bit different than the original course," Trump said. "But it can change its course again and it can go back more toward Florida."
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster declared a state of emergency, mobilizing state resources to prepare for potential storm effects. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said the state is likely to see heavy rains, winds and flooding.
The hurricane upended some Labor Day holiday weekend plans in the U.S.: Major airlines allowed travelers to change reservations without fees, big cruise lines rerouted their ships and Cumberland Island National Seashore off Georgia closed to visitors. Disney World and Orlando's other resorts held off announcing any closings.
Associated Press writers Tim Aylen in McLean's Town Cay; Seth Borenstein in Washington; Michael Weissenstein in Havana, Cuba; Dánica Coto in San Juan, Puerto Rico; Adriana Gómez Licón in Miami; Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee, Florida; Julie Walker in New York; Michael Kunzelman in College Park, Maryland; and Amy Forliti in Minneapolis contributed.