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Core of Hurricane Dorian barrels ashore in North Carolina with ‘Life-threatening’ impacts extending into Virginia

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 9/6/2019 Andrew Freedman, Jason Samenow
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Powerful Hurricane Dorian is unleashing its full array of hazards on North Carolina and southeastern Virginia just days after causing a humanitarian crisis in the northwestern Bahamas and then zagging around the Florida Peninsula, Georgia, and South Carolina.

The core of the Category 2 storm, including the eyewall containing 100-mile-per-hour sustained winds, barreled ashore near Cape Fear, North Carolina on Thursday evening and has continued to strafe the North Carolina coastline. High surf, storm surge flooding and heavy rains are affecting North Carolina and southeastern Virginia as the weakening but expansive storm swirls northeastward, and storm surge flooding is a threat on Friday up into the southern portions of the Chesapeake Bay.

Storm Tracker: Click Here to Follow Dorian's Path

The storm’s winds have decreased slightly since Thursday morning, when the storm was rated a Category 3 “major” hurricane. However, the storm’s wind field has expanded over time, with tropical-storm and hurricane-force winds covering more territory. 

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During the day on Friday, even the Virginia Tidewater and southern Delmarva Peninsula could endure tropical storm conditions. Low-lying communities such as Hampton Roads could see a storm surge of two to four feet, according to the National Hurricane Center. 

The storm is then expected to finally zoom away to the northeast, possibly clipping extreme southeast New England Friday night. The storm won’t yet be done affecting land, however. The Hurricane Center expects the storm to transition into a hurricane force post-tropical storm that will make a direct hit on Newfoundland and Nova Scotia beginning Saturday, where hurricane watches have been posted.

The latest on Dorian

As of 11 p.m. ET, the center of Hurricane Dorian was located 35 miles southeast of Wilmington, and about 70 miles southeast of Cape Lookout, North Carolina. The storm was moving northeast at 14 mph. On its current trajectory, the eye of the storm could come ashore over the Outer Banks early Friday morning, or it may miss making a landfall in the mainland U.S. entirely, instead have traced the curves of the Southeast coastline.

Hurricane Dorian had maximum sustained winds of 100 mph, with higher gusts, making it a Category 2 storm. It is forecast to weaken to a Category 1 hurricane into Friday as it interacts with land and is exposed to wind shear, or winds moving with different speeds or direction with height.

Dorian’s hurricane-force winds extend outward up to 60 miles from the center, and tropical-storm-force winds extend outward up to 220 miles.

Hurricane Dorian just before 6 p.m. on Thursday. (NOAA) Hurricane Dorian just before 6 p.m. on Thursday. (NOAA)

Thursday night, radar showed the storm’s powerful feeder bands sweeping inland from the Outer Banks into southeastern Virginia, while the core of the storm spun past Wilmington.

The powerful storm has been unloading torrential rain and occasionally spawning tornadoes, and the rain shield was expanding with time. In fact, by Thursday evening, clouds from the Hurricane stretched from South Carolina northward to Maine, as the storm interacted with the jet stream.

Power outages were increasing in North Carolina as winds climbed, with more than 70,000 customers without power as the storm neared Cape Fear. At the same time, about 190,000 customers were still without power in South Carolina, where tropical storm force winds were still occurring long after dark.

Rainfall amounts ranged from 5 to 12 inches in coastal North Carolina, with the jackpot of 11.29 inches falling in Georgetown County. Flash flooding warnings covered the region around Myrtle Beach in South Carolina and large areas of southeast North Carolina including Fayetteville and Jacksonville until past midnight early Friday, with new warnings likely to come further north.

"Flash flooding is occurring, and will continue to become more widespread across the eastern Carolinas and far southeast Virginia through tonight,” the National Hurricane Center wrote.

In parts of southeast North Carolina, Dorian’s rain bands were spinning up tornadoes and waterspouts, with multiple warnings in effect. A tornado watch remained in effect until 7 a.m. for much of eastern North Carolina northward into southeastern Virginia.

The National Weather Service forecast office in Wakefield, Virginia stated in a briefing that there is an increased threat of tornadoes overnight and into Friday morning in the southeastern portion of the state, as tropical feeder bands spin across the region moving from southeast to northwest.

There were multiple reports of coastal flooding in the vicinity of Myrtle Beach Thursday afternoon. However, surge values have remained below the worst case scenario forecast in most locations, including Charleston, South Carolina, which had expected one of their top 5 water levels on record from this storm.

Slideshow by photo services

Forecast for the Carolinas, Virginia and Maryland

Portions North Carolina and Virginia have an intense 12 to 24 hour period of tropical storm and hurricane force winds to endure, along with coastal flooding and flash flooding from heavy rainfall.

Rainfall totals could reach 6 to 15 inches in coastal North Carolina and 3 to 8 inches in far southeast Virginia, with 2 to 4 inch amounts potentially extending into southern Maryland.

Coastal flooding due to storm surge is a risk from the North Carolina coast to southeastern Virginia, where a storm-driven rise in water above normally dry land is predicted to reach at least two to four feet, and up to eight feet in places. Storm surge warnings cover this entire zone.

Coastal southeastern North Carolina will see the worst storm surge conditions during the high tide late Thursday night into early Friday morning. Whereas southeast Virginia is expected to see its biggest surge during the Friday afternoon high tide.

A landfall or near-landfall from a strong Category 2 is relatively uncommon in the Carolinas, and these storms have grown more damaging in some spots due to the combination of sea level rise and land subsidence that makes communities more vulnerable to even a modest storm surge.

The strongest winds from Hurricane Dorian have lashed the coastline of the Carolinas, with gusts over hurricane force. Gusts to 100 mph or higher could occur near the remnants of the storm’s eyewall, and the highest winds are expected on the Outer Banks toward Friday morning.

a close up of a map: Projected wind speeds from Hurricane Dorian from the National Weather Service between  Thursday night and Friday night. Times shown are Universal, subtract four hours to convert to daylight. (WeatherBell.com) Projected wind speeds from Hurricane Dorian from the National Weather Service between Thursday night and Friday night. Times shown are Universal, subtract four hours to convert to daylight. (WeatherBell.com)

Locations farther north from Virginia Beach to the southern Delmarva are expected to be scraped by the storm through Friday night, with heavy rains, tropical-storm-force winds and coastal flooding. A tropical storm warning is in effect from the North Carolina-Virginia border to Chincoteague, and for the Chesapeake Bay from Smith Point southward, where three to six inches of rain are possible, along with wind gusts up to 60 mph. The storm surge in this zone could reach to two to four feet above the normal high tide.

A Tropical Storm Warning has also been issued from north of Chincoteague, Va., to Fenwick Island, Del., for the Chesapeake Bay from Smith Point to Drum Point, and for the tidal Potomac River south of Cobb Island. This area sits along the western edge of where significant wind and rain are possible and may or may not experience tropical-storm conditions.

While the storm could bring tropical-storm conditions to the tidal Potomac south of Cobb Island, it is not forecast to send a storm surge riding up the Potomac River toward Washington, D.C.

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Extreme southeast New England could get clipped

The storm is expected to remain a powerful hurricane through Friday, before transitioning into more of a nontropical storm system that may go on to batter the Canadian Maritimes. Tropical storm warnings have been hoisted as far north as extreme southeastern New England, including parts of Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, even though the center of Dorian is expected to stay about 150 miles offshore there. This zone is now under a tropical storm warning and is most likely to be impacted by the storm Friday night.

Historical significance

Dorian is tied for the second-strongest storm (as judged by its maximum sustained winds) ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean, behind Hurricane Allen of 1980, and, after striking the northern Bahamas, tied with the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane for the title of the strongest Atlantic hurricane at landfall.

It is only the second Category 5 hurricane to make landfall in the Bahamas since 1983, according to Phil Klotzbach of Colorado State University. The only other is Hurricane Andrew in 1992. The international hurricane database goes back continuously only to 1983.

[Hurricane Dorian has smashed all sorts of intensity records in the Atlantic Ocean]

The storm’s peak sustained winds rank as the strongest so far north in the Atlantic Ocean east of Florida on record. Its pressure, which bottomed out at 910 millibars, is significantly lower than Hurricane Andrew’s when it made landfall in South Florida in 1992. (The lower the pressure, the stronger the storm.)

With Dorian attaining Category 5 strength, this is the first time since the start of the satellite era (in the 1960s) that Category 5 storms have developed in the tropical Atlantic for four straight years, according to Capital Weather Gang tropical weather expert Brian McNoldy.

The unusual strength of Dorian and the rate at which it developed is consistent with the expectation of more intense hurricanes in a warming world. Some studies have shown increases in hurricane rapid intensification, and modeling studies project an uptick in the frequency of Category 4 and 5 storms.

Dorian may have also set a record for the longest period of Category 4 and 5 conditions to strike one location in the North Atlantic Basin since the dawn of the satellite era, but historical data is relatively sparse.

Urgent relief effort ramps up for Bahamas

Officials in the United States and Bahamas are rushing to kick humanitarian relief efforts into gear on Thursday as the scope of the devastation in the Bahamas becomes clearer.

Between late Sunday and Tuesday, Dorian slammed into the northwestern Bahamas with wind gusts up to 220 mph and a 23-foot storm surge. Video and images emerging from the Bahamas show a toll of absolute devastation on Great Abaco and Grand Bahama Islands, two locations where the eye of the storm made landfall.

Grand Bahama Island suffered an onslaught from this storm that few places on Earth have experienced, remaining in the eyewall of a major hurricane (between Category 3 and 5) for 40 hours. The eyewall is the most severe part of a hurricane that contains its strongest winds and generates the most destructive storm-surge flooding.

Dorian came to a virtual standstill as it encountered the northwest Bahamas. Between 3 a.m. on Labor Day and 5 a.m. on Tuesday, the storm moved just 30 miles in 28 hours. In addition to wind gusts up to 220 mph and a 23-foot storm surge, up to 40 inches of rain were estimated in some areas.

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