MIAMI — Hurricane Dorian, one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record, hung over the Bahamas on Monday, thrashing the archipelago with high winds and surging seawater that flooded neighborhoods, submerged vehicles and shredded homes. The storm has left at least five people dead, officials said.
With the storm expected to churn a menacing path toward the United States, forecasters warned that it could inflict serious damage from Florida to southeastern Virginia and possibly beyond. Forecasters moved the storm’s much-watched “cone of uncertainty” slightly eastward on Monday, but they emphasized that even a minor change could bring the storm onto the American coast.
The island of Grand Bahama was subjected to a particularly brutal pummeling as the hurricane came to a near-standstill for most of the day, spewing sustained winds as high as 180 miles per hour.
“We are in the midst of a historic tragedy in parts of the northern Bahamas,” Prime Minister Hubert A. Minnis said at a news conference late Monday afternoon. “Our mission and focus now is search, rescue and recovery. I ask for your prayers for those in affected areas and for our first responders.”
On the Abaco Islands, to the east of Grand Bahama, thousands of homes were believed to be damaged or destroyed. The prime minister said the five deaths happened on those islands, which were mauled by Dorian over the weekend, and were still being lashed by the storm’s outer bands on Monday.
Officials said it was too early to fully assess the damage because wind and rain were making it difficult to reach many of the smaller islands. The United States Coast Guard deployed helicopters and by Monday afternoon had landed in Marsh Harbour, Abaco’s main town, to conduct rescues, a spokesman said.
Dorian hit Grand Bahama late Sunday as a Category 5 hurricane, and then was downgraded on Monday morning by the National Hurricane Center in Miami to Category 4. Forecasters described it as “extremely dangerous.”
Dorian’s menace lay in the slowness of its passage: Its heavy rains had more time to produce flooding, its winds more time to batter and weaken structures. As it traveled west, it slowed to just one mile an hour, and then slowed further, pummeling the islands from a near standstill.
“We are afraid to even think of what those people on those islands went through with the storm slowing down and almost stopped for that amount of time, and being such a strong storm,” said Geoffrey Greene, the chief meteorological officer at the Bahamas Department of Meteorology.
“We did evacuate most of the keys around Abaco and Grand Bahama,” Mr. Greene said. “But there are a few people who refuse to leave. So we’ll have to look and make sure everybody is secure if they stayed.”
Caribbean disaster response managers said that they might not be able to send teams to Abaco and Grand Bahama until Wednesday, when the hurricane conditions were forecast to ease.
“It will delay any ability to get into these two islands and to collect specific information on the level of impact,” Ronald Jackson, the executive director of the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency, said at a news conference.
With phone, internet and power lines down in many places, communication with the islands was difficult and firsthand accounts from eyewitnesses rare.
Still, officials were able to gather enough information to make grim assessments.
“Initial reports from Abaco is that the devastation is unprecedented and extensive,” said Mr. Minnis, the prime minister. “They are deeply worrying. The images and videos we are seeing are heartbreaking.”
Sune Bulow, head of the emergency operation center of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said his group anticipated widespread demand for shelter, economic support, clean water and health care.
As many as 13,000 houses may have been severely damaged or destroyed and that flooding on the Abaco Islands is believed to have contaminated wells with saltwater, according to the International Red Cross.
Michael Scott, chairman of the government-owned Grand Lucayan Resort and Casino on Grand Bahama, called the storm “apocalyptic” and “a truly cataclysmic event.”
His beachfront hotel, he reported, was operating as a refuge because many of the structures that were originally designated as shelters in Freeport, the island’s main city, were damaged.
Throughout the day on Monday, rescue teams brought in families seeking sanctuary in the hotel’s ballrooms, convention center and guest rooms.
“It’s catastrophic and horrible,” Mr. Scott said, “and we’re trying to ensure that people are able to exist with some degree of comfort.”
One resident of Great Abaco island posted a harrowing video on Monday showing water gushing along a roadway and extensive damage inside apartments. She said the storm had pried the roof off her building.
“Please pray for us,” she said. “We’re stuck right here. My baby’s only 4 months old.”
Another video that circulated widely on social media captured the storm surge heaving against the windows of the flooded home of the Bahama’s agriculture and marine resources minister, Michael Pintard.
“That’s the water hitting my front-room window, which is extremely high,” Mr. Pintard narrates as he pans the camera around his home. “That’s my kitchen window: That water is hitting and that has to be a minimum of about 20 feet off the ground.”
In a telephone interview, Mr. Pintard said that he, his wife and his daughter were trapped in the attic, looking out over the roof-high waters that had swept over their neighborhood. A couple of rescue attempts had failed to reach him, he said. But he was more concerned about his neighbors in single-story houses.
“I know that it was dire for them,” he said.
People climbed as high as they could and broadcast pleas for help over WhatsApp chat groups so that friends and relatives might contact the authorities.
In one of those appeals, a woman gives her name and address: “I need help. Me and my six grandchildren and my son we are in the ceiling,” she said, the quaver in her voice betraying her fear. “All the neighbors and everybody are in the ceiling. Can somebody please come and rescue us please. Everybody is in the ceiling and the water is rising fast.”
Sarah Kirkby, a resident of Freeport, said that people were waiting for the wind and rain to ease so that they could try to pluck people off their roofs by jet ski.
Relatives and friends of people who had remained on the islands scoured social media and news sites, trying to sift through rumors in search of solid information.
“Checking on Capt. Plug and Debbie and family? Any news?” wrote Sean Fletcher to the Facebook page of a volunteer fire and rescue unit in Hope Town, a settlement on Elbow Cay, an islet in the Abaco Islands.
“I’m trying to reach my brother, Pherrol Duncombe, the chef at the Harbour Lodge,” wrote Ohemaa Tamara. “If you have any information please let me know.”
There were nuggets of good news amid the fear and worry.
“PRAISE GOD!” exclaimed Karen Huff-Lowe in a post to the Facebook page of the Hope Town Bulletin Group. “I just got confirmation my family, Robert, Mercedes, Bessie and Maity are all O.K. They think everyone else on the island is too but communication limited.”
The Bahamas, a country that has long prided itself on withstanding powerful storms, revamped its building codes in the early 2000s, adopting some of the most stringent resiliency standards in the region. But Dorian’s slow pace, high winds and heavy rainfall, combined with the low-lying islands’ vulnerability to flooding, raised fears of huge losses.
“We saw what a Category 5 hurricane did in Dominica and the British Virgin Islands — that was Irma and Maria,” said Mr. Jackson of the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency. “So we are looking at a situation where we have a similar Category 5, a very powerful storm, a large storm, this time sitting for much longer than Maria sat on these countries.”
“We are seeing surge and high tide mixing in with rainfall to essentially deluge these islands,” he said. “We can safely say it is likely to be catastrophic.”
As the storm carved up the Bahamas on Monday, it was creating anxiety across a large swath of the United States.
Even if Dorian does not reach the Florida coast, strong winds are all but certain to disrupt life in the region. Gusts up to 57 m.p.h. were expected to reach parts of South Florida overnight. And much of Florida’s eastern coast is also susceptible to storm surges.
The storm was predicted to move “dangerously close” to the Georgia and South Carolina coasts on Wednesday night and Thursday, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Gov. Brian P. Kemp of Georgia declared a state of emergency in 12 coastal counties, and ordered a mandatory evacuation for counties east of Interstate 95.
In South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster ordered the evacuation of residents in parts of eight counties on Monday.
“We know that we cannot make everybody happy, but we believe that we can keep everyone alive,” he said.
North Carolina’s governor also declared a state of emergency. State officials warned that heavy rain could cause life-threatening flooding between Wednesday night and Friday and that there was a possibility of tornadoes.
In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis has warned coastal residents for days they should expect to lose power.
On Monday, as the hurricane’s outer rain bands raked South Florida, Palm Beach, a barrier island in a mandatory evacuation zone, felt eerily calm. Roads were empty and businesses were closed and shuttered.
A small crowd gathered along the beach, staring in awe at the wild gray waves crashing onto the shore.
“I just wanted to take a look at this — it’s crazy,” said Brandon Atkinson, 40, a West Palm Beach resident. “You admire it for the beauty but know its devastation.”
Some South Florida residents had begun moving into shelters as rain began pelting the region.
By Monday morning, the West Boynton Park and Recreation Center in Lake Worth, Fla., was already home to 75 people and 114 animals, including 75 dogs, 28 cats and several birds and rabbits. A sign posted outside warned that no livestock, reptiles or vicious dogs would be accepted.