(CNN)Hurricane warnings were issued for parts of Florida on Sunday as Hurricane Dorian battered the Bahamas with 185-mph winds.
The storm destroyed homes and blew away roofs in the Abaco Islands, local authorities said. Videos from residents on Great Abaco showed wind bending trees and heavy rain washing out the horizon as thigh-high water flooded an apartment complex.
“We are facing a hurricane that we have never seen in The Bahamas,” Prime Minister Hubert Minnis wrote on Twitter. “Please pray for us.”
Due to Dorian’s slow crawl, the National Hurricane Center forecast that a “prolonged period of catastrophic winds and storm surge will affect the Abaco Islands and Grand Bahama Island” Sunday night. By Sunday evening, the storm’s eye was moving over Great Abaco and was headed west at just 5 mph.
“Everyone there should take immediate shelter and not venture into the eye,” the center said.
As the storm crept toward Florida, mandatory evacuations had already begun.
As of 8 p.m. ET, the storm was about 155 miles east of West Palm Beach, and a large stretch of Florida’s eastern coast was under hurricane warning, from Jupiter Inlet north to the Volusia County line. A hurricane watch was issued for Volusia County.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster also issued mandatory evacuation orders for some communities along the coast between Beaufort County and Horry County beginning noon on Monday.
But exactly where — or if — it will hit the US East Coast remains unclear. Dorian’s forecast track has shifted east since Friday, making a landfall in Florida less likely but not out of the question.
The storm is expected to strike Grand Bahama, the northernmost island in the archipelago, late Sunday or early Monday, forecasters said.
Conditions are expected to grow only worse as Dorian stalls over the Bahamas, forecasters say. Some models forecast that it could stay for 24 hours or longer. By Sunday evening, it’s expected to slow down to 3 or 4 mph, a walking pace.
• With gusts over 220 mph, Dorian has become “the strongest hurricane in modern records for the northwestern Bahamas,” the National Hurricane Center said.
• The storm is growing, meteorologists said, with hurricane-force winds now extending 45 miles from its eye.
• The northwestern Bahamas are under a hurricane warning, except for Andros Island, which is under a hurricane watch. A hurricane warning means “preparations to protect life and property should be rushed to completion,” the hurricane center said.
• In the Bahamas, life-threatening storm surges of 18 to 23 feet could crash into the Abaco Islands and Grand Bahama, the hurricane center said.
• The northwestern Bahamas also could get 12 to 30 inches of rain, the hurricane center said.
• At 5 p.m. ET the hurricane center also issued a storm-surge warning for most of Florida’s Atlantic coast, from Lantana north to Volusia County. A storm-surge watch was in effect for the area between Deerfield Beach and Lantana, and for Volusia County.
Where will Dorian go next?
The storm was projected to reach Florida by Labor Day weekend, but current forecasts have it turning north Monday evening. The storm is predicted to ride along the Florida, Georgia and Carolina coasts, according to meteorologists.
Many models show the storm staying just off Florida’s coast Tuesday and then skirting the coasts of Georgia and North and South Carolina.
Still, a major hurricane hovering just off the coast could cause serious damage.
Mandatory evacuations have already been ordered for residents living in mobile homes or in low-lying areas of Palm Beach, Martin, Brevard and St. Lucie counties, officials said.
The Palm Beach and Martin county evacuations began at 1 p.m. Sunday, and the Brevard and St. Lucie county evacuations are set to start Monday morning.
St. Lucie County authorities said they have already received a report of an attempted burglary at a vacated home, and Sheriff Ken Mascara warned would-be looters, “We are watching for this kind of activity.”
Approximately 148,500 residents in St. Johns County, Florida, will be subject to a mandatory evacuation order that also goes into effect Monday morning, county authorities said. The order includes the entire city of St. Augustine, St. Augustine Beach and residents in waterfront properties or other flood-prone areas.
“This is a storm of storms,” St. John County Sheriff David Shoar told reporters Sunday.
Utility workers and the National Guard are also moving into place to respond to Dorian’s potential destruction.
About 16,000 workers are fanning out across Florida to handle expected power outages stemming from the storm, Florida Power & Light Company president Eric Silagy said.
About 4,400 Florida National Guard soldiers and airmen are preparing to respond as well, and they will focus primarily on search and rescue, communications and aviation, spokeswoman Maj. Caitlin Brown said. She added that eight military helicopters are on standby.
Possible storm surges along Florida’s coast
Hurricane and storm-surge watches have been issued for Florida’s east coast, from Deerfield Beach to the Brevard-Volusia County line, where the water could reach up to 7 feet, forecasters say.
Storm-surge watches are issued when “there is a possibility of life-threatening inundation, from rising water moving inland from the coastline, in the indicated locations during the next 48 hours,” the center said.
With wind and rain possible without direct landfall, many Florida residents are still preparing and Gov. Ron DeSantis has announced voluntary evacuations for Osceola County, Glades, Hendry and Indian River counties, as well as in parts of Palm Beach County that are not under mandatory evacuation orders.
Several highways will be suspending tolls to ease the evacuation efforts, the governor said.
Pete Werner said he is riding out the storm at home in Orlando but is sending his mother to Walt Disney World. He said it’s the “safest place” to be in Central Florida during a hurricane.
“Their hotels are built to exceed Florida building codes so they’re built to withstand a Category 5 hurricane,” he said. “It’s a self-contained city.”
Werner said he didn’t want his 88-year-old mother to be sitting in the heat if she loses power.
“I’d rather her ride it out in luxury over at the BoardWalk,” he said, referring to the Disney resort.