Hurricane Dorian is forecast to strengthen and become a highly dangerous category 4 hurricane on Sunday, threatening the Atlantic coast of central and south Florida where authorities cancelled some commercial flights on Thursday and planned precautions at rocket launch sites along the famed Space Coast.
Spurred on by warm Atlantic waters, Dorian is predicted to pack winds reaching 130 mph (209km/h) in 72 hours, the Miami-based National Hurricane Center said.
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That would make it a category 4 storm, the second-strongest on the Saffir-Simpson scale for measuring hurricane intensity. The center describes category 4 storms as capable of causing "catastrophic damage" including severe damage to well-built homes. It said in such storms, "Most trees will be snapped or uprooted and power poles downed."
Dorian is likely to make landfall on Florida's eastern coast on Monday before lingering over central Florida on Tuesday, the hurricane center said. The storm could affect big population centers as well as major Florida tourist destinations.
Currently a category 1 hurricane, Dorian took aim at the Bahamas and the Florida coast on Thursday after sideswiping the Caribbean without doing major damage. Dorian is expected to strengthen and slam the Bahamas and the southeastern United States with rain, strong winds and life-threatening surf over the next few days.
Dorian was packing maximum sustained winds of 85 miles per hour (137km/h) on Thursday morning some 220 miles (355km) north-northwest of San Juan, and about 370 miles (600km) east of the Bahamas, the hurricane center said.
US President Donald Trump urged Floridians to heed official warnings. Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency on Wednesday and asked residents along the state's east coast to stock up with at least seven days worth of supplies such as food and water.
"Hurricane Dorian looks like it will be hitting Florida late Sunday night," Trump wrote on Twitter. "Be prepared and please follow State and Federal instructions, it will be a very big Hurricane, perhaps one of the biggest!"
The US Coast Guard said all pleasure boats at the Port of Key West should seek safe harbour before the Labor Day weekend begins and ocean-going vessels should make plans to leave the port ahead of the storm.
"Dorian is expected to become a major hurricane on Friday, and remain an extremely dangerous hurricane through the weekend," the hurricane centre said, warning of an increasing likelihood of life-threatening storm surge along portions of Florida's east coast late in the weekend.
Two flights from the Orlando International Airport to Puerto Rico were cancelled, and travellers were urged to monitor local storm forecasts and check with airlines for any more flight cancellations.
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The Cape Canaveral space centre said it would close Saturday afternoon with a skeleton team of roughly 100 staff staying behind in the launch control room to monitor the storm and the site's aerospace assets.
NASA's Kennedy Space Center said it would move a 400-foot (122-meter) tall, $650-million mobile launcher structure used to assemble the agency's rocket for future moon missions from a launchpad and into a building to take shelter during Dorian's likely impact.
The University of Central Florida, one of the largest US universities by student population, said its main campus in Orlando will close Friday afternoon until at least next Tuesday and directed students living in some campus dorms to move to designated ride-out shelters on Sunday. The university called off the "Pegasus Palooza," a week of events and parties held annually to welcome incoming freshmen and transfer students.
The Universal Orlando Resort theme park, owned by Comcast Corp, said it was following the approaching storm closely.
"We are closely monitoring the weather. At this time our park operations and hours are continuing as normal. We have plans and procedures for serious weather that are time-proven and we will continue to make operating decisions as we learn more," a theme park representative said in an email.
The storm was forecast to approach on Saturday the northwest of the Bahamas, a popular tourist spot, the hurricane centre said. Officials of the nation's northernmost island Grand Bahamas urged residents on Wednesday evening to secure houses and businesses immediately.
"This storm is not to be taken lightly," said Senator Kwasi Thompson, the island's minister of State.
Trump issued an emergency declaration on Wednesday night for the US Virgin Islands, ordering federal assistance with disaster relief for the US territory. On Tuesday, he made a similar declaration for Puerto Rico, and also renewed a feud with island officials over how disaster relief funds from previous hurricanes.
Puerto Rico is still struggling to recover from back-to-back hurricanes in 2017 that killed about 3,000 people. On Wednesday, it escaped fresh disaster as Dorian avoided the territory and headed toward Florida.