Damaged homes are seen after Hurricane Dorian devastated Elbow Key Island on September 8 2019 in Hope Town, Bahamas. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/JOSE JIMENEZ
Damaged homes are seen after Hurricane Dorian devastated Elbow Key Island on September 8 2019 in Hope Town, Bahamas. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/JOSE JIMENEZ

New York/Boston — Dorian was not the deadliest or costliest hurricane to roam the Atlantic, but the two days it was stalled over the Bahamas, devastating the island nation, made it unique.

“There has never been anything like it,” Ryan Truchelut, chief meteorologist at WeatherTiger in Tallahassee, Florida, said in an interview. “We’ve never seen a category 5 storm stall like that over one point for 36 hours. The energy it unleashed in such a small area has never happened before in the Atlantic.”

The Bahamas, which were hit with winds of 290km/h and 60cm or more of rain, “were extremely unlucky, and Florida dodged a bullet”, he said.

Dorian, a day after bashing North Carolina’s barrier islands, on Saturday lost its tropical characteristics and became an intense post-tropical cyclone, with top winds of 160km/h, the National Hurricane Centre said.

Initially, the system eventually named Dorian was weak as it formed from thunderstorms near Africa and lumbered into the Caribbean towards Puerto Rico. Once it hit deeper, warm waters west of the Antilles chain of islands, it quickly grew into one of the most powerful in modern history — a category 5, the highest in hurricane lore.

“We’re seeing the future of major hurricanes,” Jeff Masters, co-founder of Weather Underground, an IBM business, said by phone. “They intensify faster and move slower.”

At first the fate of Puerto Rico, still recovering from its devastation by Hurricane Maria in 2017, was the major concern. Instead, Dorian turned its wrath towards the Bahamas, hitting the island nation with a 7m storm surge, record high winds and driving rains.

On Saturday local authorities said the number of confirmed deaths from the storm would quickly rise from the 43 confirmed, with hundreds of people still unaccounted for. Coroners were embalming bodies after running out of space in coolers, health minister Duane Sands said in a radio interview. The final death toll will likely be “staggering”, he said.

“We’ll never get to know how much rain fell over the Bahamas because the equipment was destroyed,” said Dan Kottlowski of AccuWeather in State College, Pennsylvania. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it was more than two feet [60cm]. Some people are saying up to 40 inches [about 1m]. The combination of the heavy rain and the surge was devastating.”

Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist at Woods Hole Research Centre, said: “If it hit Florida that strong it would have caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. It would have been the worst in US history.”

Florida was largely unaffected, with the storm travelling more than 100km from its coast, moving slowly northward. North Carolina, though, wasn’t so lucky as the storm swirled closer and closer to the shoreline.

Eventually it made a brief landfall on Friday on the state’s barrier islands as a category 1 hurricane. It drenched the Carolinas, spurred about a dozen tornadoes in the region and caused major flooding.

Crops in the southeastern region were a serious concern prior to Dorian’s arrival on the coast since the storm was coming at a time when fields were maturing, and high winds could have dealt a devastating blow before farmers have a chance to harvest. But early reports indicated crops such as cotton avoided major problems and livestock plants were running.

“Overall, the storm was not as bad as we thought,” Wayne Boseman, president of the Carolinas Cotton Growers Co-operative, said in an e-mail from Garner, North Carolina.

Philip Klotzbach, a hurricane researcher with Colorado State University, said he expects Dorian will end up as one of the longest-running storms, with a 15-day lifespan. That would put it between hurricanes Felix and Faith, which lasted 15.5 days and 14 days, respectively. The longest-lasting named storm was Alberto in 2000, which survived for a little more than 19 days, he said.