Hurricane Dorian has gained fearsome new muscle as an “extremely dangerous” Category 4 storm, bearing down on the northwestern Bahamas early Saturday en route to Florida’s east coast.

Millions of people in Florida, along with the state’s Walt Disney World and U.S. President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, are in the potential crosshairs of the hurricane. Forecasters say Dorian, which had top sustained winds of 225 km/h Friday night, will threaten the Florida peninsula late Monday or early Tuesday.

But the National Hurricane Center in Miami cautioned that its meteorologists remain uncertain whether Dorian would make a devastating direct strike on the state’s east coast or inflict a glancing blow. Some of the more reliable computer models predicted a late turn northward that would have Dorian hug the Florida coast.

“There is hope,” Weather Underground meteorology director Jeff Masters said.

Local residents fill sandbags to protect their homes ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Dorian in Kissimmee, Fla., on Friday. (Gregg Newton/Reuters)

However, the risk may be increasing elsewhere. The hurricane centre’s advisory released at 8 a.m. ET on Saturday warned the possibility of “strong winds and life-threatening storm surge” is increasing along Georgia and South Carolina’s coasts. 

The faint hope of dodging Dorian’s fury came Friday, even as the storm ratcheted up from a menacing Category 3 hurricane to an even more dangerous Category 4. That raised fears Dorian could become the most powerful hurricane to hit Florida’s east coast in nearly 30 years.

National Hurricane Center projections showed Dorian hitting roughly near Fort Pierce, some 113 kilometres north of Mar-a-Lago, then running along the coastline as it moves north. But forecasters cautioned that the storm’s track remains still highly uncertain and even a small deviation could put Dorian offshore — or well inland.

Trump has declared a state of emergency in Florida and authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency to co-ordinate disaster-relief efforts. He told reporters that “Mar-a-Lago can handle itself” and that he is more worried about Florida.

“This is big and is growing, and it still has some time to get worse,” Julio Vasquez said at a Miami fast-food joint next to a gas station that had run out of fuel. “No one knows what can really happen. This is serious.”

Orlando resorts in storm’s path

As Dorian closed in, Labour Day weekend plans were upended. Major airlines began allowing travelers to change their reservations without fees. The big cruise lines began rerouting their ships. Disney World and Orlando’s other resorts found themselves in the storm’s projected path.

Still, with Dorian days away and its track uncertain, Disney and other major resorts held off announcing any closings, and Florida authorities ordered no immediate mass evacuations.

“Sometimes if you evacuate too soon, you may evacuate into the path of the storm if it changes,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said.

But some counties announced mandatory evacuations ahead of time on Friday. Brevard County and Martin County officials announced residents of barrier islands, mobile homes and low-lying areas would be under a mandatory evacuation order beginning Sunday morning. The Brevard County order includes the Kennedy Space Center. Indian River County officials said they will recommend residents of its barrier island voluntarily evacuate once hurricane warnings are issued.

Homeowners and businesses rushed to cover their windows with plywood. Supermarkets ran out of bottled water, and long lines formed at gas stations, with some fuel shortages reported.

At a Publix supermarket in Cocoa Beach, Ed Ciecirski of the customer service department said the pharmacy was extra busy with people rushing to fill prescriptions. The grocery was rationing bottled water and had run out of dry ice.

“It’s hairy,” he said.

Early Saturday, Dorian was centred 820 kilometres east of West Palm Beach. It was moving northwest at 17 km/h. Forecasters warned that its slow movement means Florida could face a prolonged wallop of wind, storm surge and torrential rain.

Coastal areas could get 150 to 300 millimetres of rain, with 460 millimetres in some places, triggering life-threatening flash floods, the hurricane centre said.

Also imperilled were the Bahamas , where canned food and bottled water were disappearing quickly from shelves and the sound of hammering echoed across the islands as people boarded up their homes. Dorian was expected to hit the northwestern part of the Bahamas by Sunday with the potential for life-threatening storm surge that could raise water levels 5 metres above normal.

“Do not be foolish and try to brave out this hurricane,” Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said. “The price you may pay for not evacuating is your life.”