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Dorian now a record-breaking hurricane, expected to weaken as it approaches SC

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Hurricane Dorian on Sunday did little to ease concerns about hitting South Carolina in the coming days, surging to record-high winds as it moved across the Bahamas. 

Forecasts from the National Hurricane Center showed the storm continuing to move west toward Florida before shifting north and northeast. Dorian is expected to weaken, but remain a hurricane, as it moves up the east coast, reaching the Carolinas by early Thursday.

In response, Gov. Henry McMaster ordered a mandatory evacuation of the South Carolina coast starting noon Monday. 

“There is an increasing likelihood of strong winds and dangerous storm surge along the coasts of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina later this week,” NHC meteorologist Lixion Avila reported Sunday.

The storm struck the Bahamas mid-day Sunday, hours after it was upgraded to a Category 5 hurricane, with sustained winds up to 185 mph. Dorian is expected to linger over the islands Monday, causing storm surges to raise water levels by up to 23 feet and dumping up to 30 inches of rain in some areas.

Last week, it appeared Florida was going to take the brunt of the storm, with forecasts predicting it could move across the middle of the state. But in the days since, Dorian’s predicted path has shifted. 

As of Sunday evening, forecasts showed the storm was not expected to make landfall on Florida. With the uncertain forecast, hurricane and storm surge warnings were issued for parts of the state's east coast.

"The hurricane will move dangerously close to the Florida east coast late Monday through Tuesday night," NHC meteorologist John Cangialosi said. 

An already dangerous Hurricane Dorian intensified yet again Sunday as it closed in on the northern Bahamas, threatening to batter islands with Category 5-strength winds, pounding waves and torrential rain as people hunkered down in schools, churches and other shelters.

The storm still poses a serious threat in South Carolina even if it doesn't make a direct hit to the state.

On Sunday, the state's emergency operations center went from operational condition level two — which indicates a disaster is likely — to level one, meaning a disaster or emergency is imminent.

"All state emergency response team personnel are activated or ready to deploy," according to an alert from the S.C. Emergency Management Division.

Hurricane Wire is a pop-up newsletter during hurricane season that delivers anyone who lives on the East Coast all the information they need to know as storms brew in the Atlantic and beyond.

The state emergency division started a web page dedicated to Dorian with storm preparation advice. The page will be updated with news and alerts as the storm approaches.

Even before Gov. McMaster's order, local and federal officials announced they were ratcheting up emergency plans.

Officials from Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties, during a press conference, announced heightened emergency operations plans, like telephone information lines and sandbag pickups, in preparation for the storm. They also urged residents to prepare and heed any evacuation orders.

“I know it’s an inconvenience but we’d all rather be inconvenienced than harmed,” Charleston County Council Chairman Elliott Summey said. 

Charleston's Parks Department staff started boarding up city buildings Sunday, and the city continued to do preventative maintenance work on storm drains and ditches. Temporary pumps are being staged in low-lying areas of the city prone to flooding. 

The Queen Street, Visitor's Center and Aquarium garages will be open for free parking for the public starting noon Monday and continuing throughout the storm. The Gaillard Auditorium garage is reserved for city emergency personnel.

Dorian is tied for the strongest Atlantic hurricane landfall on record with the unnamed Labor Day hurricane in 1935. The storm is also tied for the second-highest winds of any Atlantic hurricane.

On Sunday, it was upgraded to a Category 5 hurricane based on data collected by Air Force Hurricane Hunter, which measured sustained winds first of 160 mph, then 175 mph and, by early afternoon, 185 mph, well over the threshold to qualify as a Category 5 storm, which is 157 mph.

Current models don't show the storm tracking near the southern end of the South Carolina coastline until late Wednesday night into early Thursday, but the Charleston area could start to experience tropical storm-force winds late Tuesday evening. The majority of South Carolina’s coast could see at least 6 inches of rain through Friday, the NHC said.

“Each one of these storms is different and it impacts us in different ways," Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon said. "Do not base your action, or inaction on whatever little experience you’ve had or what you’ve done in the past or what you’ve seen on TV.”

Tidal flooding and strong rip currents at area beaches continued to be hazards in the Charleston area, even before Dorian's approach, Rebecca Davidson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Charleston office, said. A coastal flood advisory was in effect overnight for Beaufort, Charleston counties and Coastal Colleton, with road flooding likely. 

Emily Williams is a business reporter at The Post and Courier, covering tourism and aerospace. She also writes the Business Headlines newsletter and co-hosts the weekly podcast Understand SC.

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