Packing 150 mph winds late Saturday, Hurricane Dorian ranks as one of the more powerful hurricanes on record in the Atlantic, and South Carolina is not out of its crosshairs.
The storm's projected path shifted gradually to the east, putting it farther out to sea, but experts and public officials warned residents that Dorian could still pack a wallop, even if it doesn't make landfall in the Palmetto State.
As of 11 p.m., Dorian's wind speed was holding steady after undergoing rapid intensification Friday night and into Saturday morning. It remained a devastating Category 4 storm that was bearing down on the Bahamas.
Gov. Henry McMaster declared a state of emergency Saturday and met with state and local officials to ramp up preparations for the storm. Charleston city officials followed with an emergency declaration of their own later in the afternoon.
The general consensus is that Dorian will stay off the coast, but there is always a possibility the storm could give the Lowcountry a glancing blow, said Charleston-based meteorologist Shea Gibson, with the forecasting company WeatherFlow. Another 50- to 100-mile shift to the east would make "a huge difference" by taking Charleston out of the hurricane-force wind field.
The storm poses several risks, depending on how close to the coast it passes.
Possible Charleston impacts
Charleston has dealt with consecutive nights of flooding from a combination of factors. Winds coming out of the northeast, a new moon and the peak of a perigean cycle, where the moon is closest to the Earth, have all combined to push water onto land, shutting down streets in downtown Charleston and other low-lying areas for several hours each night.
And the high tidal levels are expected to continue as Dorian approaches.
Possible impacts from hurricane, such as storm surge and heavy rain, could combine with high tides to produce widespread coastal flooding, including in marshland and estuaries, Gibson said.
Leading computer models diverge on where Dorian will turn after Monday. Landfall could now be anywhere from Florida to North Carolina — if the storm makes landfall at all.
In Charleston, the two biggest risks before the hurricane has any impact are tidal flooding and strong rip currents at area beaches, said Peter Mohlin, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service's Charleston office.
Moving forward into the coming week, forecasters expect the morning high tides to produce minor or moderate flooding and the nighttime high tides should produce moderate to major flooding, Mohlin said.
On Saturday night, the National Weather Service said that despite the uncertainty in Dorian's path, forecasters were confident that the Charleston area would experience coastal flooding along with a moderate chance of flooding rain and hazardous marine conditions, and low risk of storm surge and wind damage.
Predicting Dorian's path
National Hurricane Center specialists Lixion Avila and Michael Brennan wrote in an online forecast discussion that the storm could get worse as it passes over "a deep layer of very warm waters," which combined with favorable atmospheric conditions, means that additional strengthening is possible "during the next day or so."
"Most likely, however, the hurricane will experience some fluctuations in intensity due to eyewall replacement cycles that are difficult to predict," they wrote. "Dorian will remain a dangerous hurricane through five days."
The preferred track of the leading models continued to be for the storm to skirt the Southeast coast through the week, along or just offshore. That would be similar to the destructive path of Hurricane Matthew in 2016, which flattened half the dunes along a 177-mile stretch from Florida to North Carolina.
"Getting 'Matthew 2016' Excedrin headaches now," meteorologist Jonathan Erdman, of the Weather Channel, tweeted early Saturday.
If the storm continues up or near the coast, South Carolina could feel the brunt of it starting Wednesday and throughout the day Thursday, according to the model runs. Heavy rain of a foot or more and flooding are possible, and wind gusts strong enough to knock down trees and tear off roofs. If the storm rides up the coast, it could bring hurricane conditions.
Dorian was holding a forward speed of 8 mph late Saturday, but some experts projected that speed to slow.
By Sunday afternoon, the hurricane's forward movement could drop to just 5 mph, said meteorologist Jeff Masters, of the forecasting company Weather Underground.
"Hurricanes moving this slowly tend to weaken, since they are unable to 'outrun' the large amount of cooler water from the depths that their winds stir to the surface," Masters said. "The weakening from this effect for Dorian may be less than one usually sees for a slow-moving storm, since the warm waters of the Gulf Stream lie along its path."
That weakening process is what happened with Hurricane Florence last year, and its winds dropped from a terrifying 156 mph to 90 mph before it made landfall in North Carolina.
Hurricanes come apart when they move over land and lose the water heat that fuels them, so a slow crawl overland up the Southeast coast also would weaken Dorian, but it also means the storm thrashes the coast for longer.
Mohlin said he and his colleagues are telling the public they should still be preparing for possible impacts from a major hurricane.
"Obviously a track that’s further offshore is more favorable for us," he said.
"Regardless of the eventual path, periods of heavy rain and high winds are possible as Dorian expands in size while making its closest approach mid into late week," the advisory said.
Behind Dorian, hurricane center staff had begun watching a storm in the Gulf of Mexico near Haiti and a storm that rolled off Africa on Friday.
In the Bahamas, evacuations began Saturday as Dorian bore down.
Forecasters expect Dorian to hit the northwestern Bahamas on Sunday before curving upward.
In the northern Bahamas, tourists were sent to government shelters in schools, churches and other buildings offering protection from the storm while residents were evacuating.
Over two or three days, the hurricane could dump as much as 4 feet of rain, unleash devastating winds and whip up an abnormal and dangerous rise in sea level called storm surge, according to private meteorologist Ryan Maue and some of the most reliable computer models.
Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis warned that Dorian is a "devastating, dangerous storm."
In Florida, officials planned to close Orlando International Airport on Monday "out of an abundance of caution."
Although the storm is expected to stay offshore of Florida and skirt the Carolinas, the National Hurricane Center in Miami stressed that Dorian could still hit Florida, where millions of people have been in the storm's changing potential path.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and federal officials warned people not to let their guard down.
The storm upended some Labor Day weekend plans: Major airlines allowed travelers to change their reservations without fees, big cruise lines began rerouting their ships and Cumberland Island National Seashore off Georgia closed to visitors.
Disney World and Orlando's other resorts held off announcing any closings, with Dorian days away and its track uncertain.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.