Dorian creeps up U.S. coast; near-record storm surge feared

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — A weakened but still deadly Hurricane Dorian crept up the Southeastern seaboard Wednesday, and millions were ordered to evacuate as forecasters said near-record levels of seawater and rain could swamp the coasts of Georgia and the Carolinas.

The storm, which ravaged the Bahamas with more than a full day of devastating wind and rain, had weakened substantially — dropping from a Category 5 storm to a Category 2. But it still had dangerously high winds and threatened to swamp low-lying regions from Georgia to southeastern Virginia on its trek northward.

"We will experience hurricane-force winds, in at least gusts," South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said at a news conference. Even if the hurricane doesn't end up hitting the state directly, he said, "there's still going to be wind and water and if you're in the coastal area, that water can be treacherous."

Dorian appeared likely to get dangerously near Charleston, South Carolina, which is vulnerably located on a peninsula. A flood chart posted by the National Weather Service projected a combined high tide and storm surge around Charleston Harbor of 10.3 feet (3.1 meters); the record, 12.5 feet (4 meters), was set by Hugo in 1989.

Stores and restaurants were boarded up with wood and corrugated metal in Charleston's historic downtown, and about 830,000 people were under mandatory evacuation orders on the South Carolina coast. More than 1,500 people were in 28 shelters statewide.

Mark Russell, a homeless U.S. Army veteran, said he had been in a shelter since Monday.

"Once the rain comes and the wind hits, it's going to blow left, right, in and out, and there's not really a place that you can find" to avoid it, said Russell, 63.

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This Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019 image provided by NASA shows a view of Hurricane Dorian from the International Space Station as it churned over the Atlantic Ocean north of Puerto Rico. Leaving mercifully little damage in its wake in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, Hurricane Dorian swirled toward the U.S., with forecasters warning it will draw energy from the warm, open waters as it closes in. (NASA via AP)
Store shelves are empty of bottled water as residents buy supplies in preparation for Hurricane Dorian, in Doral, Fla., Thursday, July 29, 2019. The U.S. National Hurricane Center says Dorian could hit the Florida coast over the weekend as a major hurricane. (AP Photo/Marcus Lim)
Shoppers prepare ahead of Hurricane Dorian at The Home Depot on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019, in Pembroke Pines, Fla. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Empty shelves are seen with a sign at Costco stating that the retailer is currently sold out of water ahead of Hurricane Dorian on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019, in Davie, Fla. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham, left, looks on as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks about Tropical Storm Dorian outside of the the National Hurricane Center, Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
This GOES-16 satellite image taken Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019, at 14:20 UTC and provided by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), shows Hurricane Dorian, right, moving over open waters of the Atlantic Ocean. The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Dorian was expected to grow into a potentially devastating Category 3 hurricane before hitting the U.S. mainland late Sunday or early Monday somewhere between the Florida Keys and southern Georgia. (NOAA via AP)
Shoppers wait in long lines at Costco, Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019, in Davie, Fla., as they stock up on supplies ahead of Hurricane Dorian. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
MIAMI BEACH, FLORIDA - AUGUST 30: People walk to their boat through a flooded parking lot at the Haulover Marine Center before the arrival of Hurricane Dorian on August 30, 2019 in Miami Beach, Florida. The high water was due to King tide which may cause additional problems as Hurricane Dorian arrives in the area as a possible Category 4 storm along the Florida coast. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
MIAMI BEACH, FLORIDA - AUGUST 30: Weston Rice drives through a flooded parking lot as he prepares to drop his jet ski into the water at the Haulover Marine Center before the arrival of Hurricane Dorian on August 30, 2019 in Miami Beach, Florida. The high water was due to King tide which may cause additional problems as Hurricane Dorian arrives in the area as a possible Category 4 storm along the Florida coast. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
A man stands on a store's roof as he works to prepare it for the arrival of Hurricane Dorian in Freeport on Grand Bahama, Bahamas, Sunday, Sept. 1, 2019. 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. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
This GOES-16 satellite image taken Sunday, Sept. 1, 2019, at 17:00 UTC and provided by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), shows Hurricane Dorian, right, churning over the Atlantic Ocean. Hurricane Dorian struck the northern Bahamas on Sunday as a catastrophic Category 5 storm, its 185 mph winds ripping off roofs and tearing down power lines as hundreds hunkered in schools, churches and other shelters. (NOAA via AP)
President Donald Trump, left, listens as Kenneth Graham, director of NOAA's National Hurricane Center, on screen, gives an update during a briefing about Hurricane Dorian at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Sunday, Sept. 1, 2019, in Washington, at right of Trump is Acting Administrator Pete Gaynor, Federal Emergency Management Agency, and acting White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler, and Neil Jacobs, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Environmental Observation and Prediction. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
President Donald Trump speaks during a briefing about Hurricane Dorian at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Sunday, Sept. 1, 2019, in Washington, as Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan, left, looks on. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
People walk on a largely deserted beach of the Atlantic Ocean on the barrier island in Vero Beach, Fla., Sunday, Sept. 1, 2019. The barrier island is under a voluntary evacuation today and a mandatory evacuation tomorrow in preparation for the possibility of Hurricane Dorian making landfall. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
RIVIERA BEACH, FLORIDA - SEPTEMBER 1: Workers place shutters over the windows of a Food Mart store as the owner prepares just in case Hurricane Dorian hits the area on September 1, 2019 in Riviera Beach, Florida. Dorian was projected to make landfall along the Florida coast but now projections have it making a sharp turn to the north as it closes in on Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Tree branches are seen in the road during the approach of Hurricane Dorian on September 1, 2019 in Nassau, Bahamas. - Hurricane Dorian strengthened into a catastrophic Category 5 storm Sunday, packing 160 mph (267 kph) winds as it was about to slam into the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas, US weather forecasters said."#Dorian is now a category 5 #hurricane with 160 mph sustained winds," the Miami-based National Hurricane Center said in a tweet. "The eyewall of this catastrophic hurricane is about to hit the Abaco Islands with devastating winds," it said.The slow moving storm was expected to linger over the Bahamas through Sunday and much of Monday, dumping up to 25 inches of rain in some areas and unleashing storm surges of 10 to 15-feet, forecasters said. (Photo by Lucy WORBOYS / AFP) (Photo credit should read LUCY WORBOYS/AFP/Getty Images)
Tree branches are seen in the road during the approach of Hurricane Dorian on September 1, 2019 in Nassau, Bahamas. - Hurricane Dorian strengthened into a catastrophic Category 5 storm Sunday, packing 160 mph (267 kph) winds as it was about to slam into the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas, US weather forecasters said."#Dorian is now a category 5 #hurricane with 160 mph sustained winds," the Miami-based National Hurricane Center said in a tweet. "The eyewall of this catastrophic hurricane is about to hit the Abaco Islands with devastating winds," it said.The slow moving storm was expected to linger over the Bahamas through Sunday and much of Monday, dumping up to 25 inches of rain in some areas and unleashing storm surges of 10 to 15-feet, forecasters said. (Photo by Lucy WORBOYS / AFP) (Photo credit should read LUCY WORBOYS/AFP/Getty Images)
The entrance to Wambasso Beach County Park is closed in Wambasso Beach, Florida on September 1, 2019, ahead of Hurricane Dorian. - Hurricane Dorian unleashed "catastrophic conditions" as it hit the northern Bahamas, lashing the low-lying island chain with devastating 180 mph (285 kph) winds, the most intense in its modern history. Florida residents, meanwhile, were bracing for a potentially dangerous brush with the storm as it slowly turns north after passing the Bahamas. (Photo by Adam DelGiudice / AFP) (Photo credit should read ADAM DELGIUDICE/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump receives a briefing at the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) on Hurricane Dorian in Washington, DC, on September 1, 2019. (Photo by Nicholas Kamm / AFP) (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump receives a briefing at the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) on Hurricane Dorian in Washington, DC, on September 1, 2019. (Photo by Nicholas Kamm / AFP) (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
ATLANTIC OCEAN - SEPTEMBER 1: In this NOAA GOES-East satellite handout image, Hurricane Dorian, now a Cat. 5 storm, tracks towards the Florida coast taken at 13:20Z September 1, 2019 in the Atlantic Ocean. A hurricane warning is in effect for much of the northwestern Bahamas as it gets hit with 175 mph winds. According to the National Hurricane Center Dorian is predicted to hit the U.S. as a Category 4 storm. (Photo by NOAA via Getty Images)
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In North Carolina, where authorities said an 85-year-old man died after falling from a ladder while getting ready for the storm, Gov. Roy Cooper warned of the threat of storm surge and flash flooding from heavy rains. The Outer Banks were particularly exposed.

There were boarded up windows and empty parking lots in Wilmington, North Carolina, ahead of Dorian. But there were plenty of open gas stations without lines and traffic heading both in and out of town.

Nathan May evacuated his Carolina Beach, North Carolina, home for Hurricane Florence last year. After it didn't flood and only a few branches were knocked down, he decided he would ride out Dorian.

"I want to see what it is like," said May, who moved from Arizona a few years ago. "A bunch of the neighbors are having a party and they said we will be OK."

Georgia's coastal islands were also at risk, Gov. Brian Kemp said Wednesday.

"We are very worried, especially about the barrier islands getting cut off if we have these storm surges at the same time as ... the high tides," Kemp said.

The approach of Dorian has left the cobblestone streets of Savannah, Georgia's downtown historic district largely deserted. But there were still places to find a hurricane party. More than 30 people gathered at Pinkie Master's Lounge on Wednesday evening, as wind gusts from the storm offshore bent tree tops in Savannah — nearly 20 miles (32 kilometers) inland.

Duke Energy said Dorian could cause more than 700,000 power outages in eastern regions of North Carolina and South Carolina, and Georgia Power said about 2,800 homes and businesses were already without electricity.

The Navy ordered ships at its huge base in Norfolk, Virginia, to head to sea for safety, and warplanes at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Virginia, were being moved inland. The commander of the Navy Region Mid-Atlantic issued an emergency evacuation order for military personnel and their dependents in five North Carolina counties.

Weaker but bigger since it slammed the Bahamas with 185 mph (295 kph) winds earlier this week and killed at least 20, Dorian was moving off the Georgia coast at 8 mph (13 kph) late Wednesday afternoon. Forecasters said it had maximum sustained winds of 110 mph (175 kph) and was centered about 130 miles (210 kilometers) south of Charleston.

A hurricane warning covered about 500 miles (about 800 kilometers) of coastline, and authorities warned about 3 million residents to get away before the water and wind rose.

The acting administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Peter Gaynor, said 4,000 federal responders; 6,000 National Guard members; and 40,000 utility workers were on standby.

"We are ready to go," Gaynor said. "We'll follow Dorian up the coast until it is not a threat."

In Florida, initially projected to take a direct hit from Dorian, there was widespread relief and gratitude Wednesday after the storm passed the state from a relatively safe distance offshore.

"We're lucky today," said Ryan Haggett, kitchen manager at the Oceanside Beach Bar and Grill, at Flagler Beach. Haggett and others removed storm shutters from restaurant windows, preparing to serve dinner Wednesday night.

With the threat to Florida easing and the danger shifting northward, Orlando, Florida's international airport reopened, as did Walt Disney World and Universal. Dorian forced Disney Cruise Line to cancel one trip and delay the return of another ship to Port Canaveral, Florida.

One resident in the state died while preparing for the storm Monday evening, when Dorian's path was still projected to threaten Florida. Joseph Walden, 56, was sitting on a tree limb and using a chainsaw to trim other limbs in the Orlando suburb of Ocoee when one of the cut limbs broke free and knocked him to the ground, police said. He was pronounced dead at a hospital.

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Associated Press reporters Russ Bynum in Savannah, Georgia; Gary Robertson in Raleigh, North Carolina, Jeffrey Collins in Carolina Beach, North Carolina; Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Alabama; Michael Schneider in Orlando, Florida, David Fischer in Miami, and Meg Kinnard in Charleston, South Carolina, contributed to this report.

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