A beachgoer runs under the rain at the Hollywood Beach Broadwalk on Saturday in Hollywood, Florida. Credit: David Santiago | Miami Herald via AP

With peak winds of 180 mph, Hurricane Dorian is the strongest storm on record to strike the northwestern Bahamas, and threatens to bring high winds, coastal flooding and other impacts to the eastern coast of Florida and Southeast U.S.

These winds are the strongest so far north in the Atlantic Ocean east of Florida on record, and makes Dorian among the top 10 most intense storms on record in the North Atlantic basin. Its pressure, down to 913 millibars, is lower than Hurricane Andrew’s when it made landfall in south Florida in 1992 (the lower the pressure, the stronger the storm).

Only six Atlantic hurricanes since 1950 have had stronger winds than Hurricane Dorian’s, three of which occurred since 2005.

A “catastrophic” scenario is unfolding in the northwestern Bahamas, where the storm’s eyewall, the ring of destructive winds around the center, approached Sunday morning.

The eyewall of catastrophic Hurricane Dorian is currently reaching the Abaco Islands,” the Hurricane Center wrote in a special bulletin. “This is a life-threatening situation. Residents there should take immediate shelter.”

The center added the combination of wind gusts up to 200 mph and a storm surge of 15 to 20 would cause “extreme destruction.”

The storm is moving slowly toward Florida and the Southeast United States, but its exact track remains somewhat uncertain, with computer models shifting the storm slightly closer to the coast early Sunday, compared with Saturday.

Florida may miss the full fury of this severe hurricane, but dangerous storm hazards are still possible. Coastal Georgia and the Carolinas also are at risk.

“[L]ife-threatening storm surge and dangerous hurricane-force winds are still possible along portions of the Florida east coast by the middle part of this week,” the Hurricane Center wrote.

Even while the majority of computer models predict Dorian will remain just off the Florida coast, the National Hurricane Center is urging residents not to let their guard down and to continue preparing for an “extremely dangerous” hurricane and that landfall can still not be ruled out.

The storm’s peak winds are now at 180 mph, and Dorian has maintained Category 4 and now Category 5 intensity for an unusually long period.

Storms this powerful typically tend to undergo cycles that weaken their high-end winds for a time.

Over the northern Bahamas, the storm’s core of devastating wind and torrential rain may sit for at least 24 hours as steering currents in the atmosphere collapse, causing Dorian to meander slowly, if not stall outright, for a time.

This forecast scenario could bring catastrophic wind damage, dump more than two feet of rain, and cause a storm surge, which is the storm-driven rise in water above normally dry land at the coast of at least 15 to 20 feet above normal tide levels.

In short, this is a storm that, depending on its exact track over the northern Bahamas, particularly Grand Bahama and the Abaco Islands, could reshape these locations for decades.

It’s also extremely likely to be only the second Category 5 hurricane to make landfall in the Bahamas since 1983, according to Phil Klotzbach of Colorado State University. The only other is Hurricane Andrew in 1992. The international hurricane database goes back continuously only to 1983.

After models run early Saturday shifted the storm track offshore Florida, some that were run late Saturday into early Sunday shifted it back closer to the Florida coast. The Hurricane Center has issued a hurricane watch for north of Deerfield Beach to the Volusia and Brevard County Line, where hurricane conditions could occur late Monday or early Tuesday.

Dorian has grown larger in size, which may have implications for the Florida forecast. Hurricane-force winds now extend outward up to 45 miles from the center and tropical-storm-force winds extend outward up to 140 miles. The latest forecast from the Hurricane Center calls for Dorian to remain a Category 5 storm for 24 hours before slowly weakening, but remaining a formidable hurricane, as it moves close to Florida and northward to the Carolinas.

Because it would take just a small shift in Dorian’s track for hazardous winds to reach Florida’s east coast, a tropical storm warning was issued for the zone from Deerfield Beach, just north of Fort Lauderdale, to Sebastian Inlet, just south of Melbourne. These warnings were expanded at 11 a.m. Sunday, along with tropical storm watches, in case high winds move over a larger portion along the Florida coast.

“It is emphasized that although the official track forecast does not show landfall, users should not focus on the exact track. A small deviation to the left of the track could bring the intense core of the hurricane its dangerous winds closer to or onto the coast,” the Hurricane Center stated.

While most models keep Dorian offshore Florida, the Hurricane Center wrote in its 11 a.m. Sunday advisory that a track near the coast or even landfall in Florida remain possibilities.

If the storm makes a close pass to Florida, tropical-storm-force winds could arrive as soon as Sunday night or early Monday morning. Because the storm is predicted to be a slow mover, effects from wind, rain and storm surge could be prolonged, lingering through the middle of next week.

Irrespective of the storm’s ultimate course near Florida’s east coast to the North Carolina Outer Banks — or even inland — significant coastal flooding is likely because of the force of Dorian’s winds and astronomically high or king tides.

The risk of a direct strike on Florida is less than it was a few days ago but has not been eliminated. Much depends on the strength of the high-pressure area that has been pushing Dorian west toward the northern Bahamas and Florida. The high acts as a blocking mechanism to prevent the storm from turning north out to sea, at least until the high diminishes in strength.

Most models show steering currents collapsing as Dorian nears Florida because of a weakening of the high, before it gets scooped up by a dip in the jet stream approaching the East Coast and starts turning north.

However, this collapse in steering currents is so close to Florida that some models continue to track the storm close enough for damaging impacts in parts of the state. One trend in the models overnight on Saturday and Sunday morning has been to show a slightly stronger high that brings the center of Dorian farther west, closer to the Florida coast and the Southeast coast, before making the northward turn.

However, a few models do bring it inland or come perilously close. And there is time for the models to shift further — either closer to Florida and the Carolinas or farther out to sea.

Farther north into coastal Georgia and the Carolinas, the forecast is also a nail-biter. Just small differences in where the storm starts to turn north and, eventually, northeast and the shape of the turn will determine where and whether Dorian makes landfall.

Scenarios involving a direct hit, a graze and a near miss appear equally likely based on available forecasts. As the Hurricane Center writes: “Residents in these areas should continue to monitor the progress of Dorian.”

The shape of the coastline from northern Florida through the Carolinas means there is a risk of significant storm-surge flooding there even if the storm’s center remains just offshore.

However, unlike with notorious recent storms such as Matthew and Florence, it’s unlikely that the Carolinas will experience devastating rainfall amounts from Hurricane Dorian, as the storm will pick up forward speed on nearing the Carolinas.

With Dorian attaining Category 5 strength, this is first time since the start of the satellite era (in the 1960s) that Category 5 storms have developed in the tropical Atlantic in four straight years, according to The Washington Post’s tropical weather expert Brian McNoldy.