Hurricane Dorian's almost 185-mph sustained winds are bringing "catastrophic conditions" to the Abaco Islands, the National Hurricane Center said, and forecasters predict the Category 5 storm will remain over the northern Bahamas into Monday.
The storm made landfall on the southern end of Elbow Cay, which runs along the east coast of Great Abaco, early Sunday afternoon. It was the first time a Category 5 storm has hit the island chain since Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
With gusts over 220 mph, Dorian has become "the strongest hurricane in modern records for the northwestern Bahamas," the center said.
The Abaco Islands have already suffered major damage, according to the Hope Town Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department, with multiple reports of destroyed houses and roofs blown off.
"This is a life-threatening situation," the National Hurricane Center said Sunday, urging Abacos residents to stay sheltered and warning them, "Do not venture out into the eye if it passes over your location."
The storm is growing, meteorologists said, with hurricane-force winds now extending 45 miles from its eye. 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.
Once the storm finishes deluging the Bahamas it is expected to head toward Florida, where mandatory evacuations have already begun. But exactly where (or if) it will hit the US East Coast remains unclear.
As of 2 p.m. ET, the storm was about 185 miles east of West Palm Beach, Florida.
Dorian is moving to the west at 7 mph and is expected to strike Grand Bahama, the northernmost island in the archipelago, late Sunday or early Monday, forecasters said. By Sunday evening, it's expected to slow down to 3 or 4 mph, a walking pace, forecasters say.
The northwestern Bahamas are under a hurricane warning, which means "preparations to protect life and property should be rushed to completion," the hurricane center 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.
• As of 2 p.m. ET Sunday a hurricane warning was in effect for the northwestern Bahamas, except for Andros Island, which is under a hurricane watch.
• 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.
• Dorian is expected to move across the Bahamas slowly, creating life-threatening conditions as "rain, winds and storm surge (keep) piling up," hurricane center Director Ken Graham said Saturday.
• Dorian's forecast track has shifted east since Friday, making a landfall in Florida less likely but not out of the question.
Where will Dorian go next?
Hurricane Dorian had been threatening to strike the US mainland, but there is still a lot of uncertainty on when and where it will make landfall.
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.