Swirling out of the Caribbean with four people dead in its wake, Hurricane Bertha whipped up force Tuesday, menaced the Bahamas and headed for the eastern seaboard of the United States.
Forecasters expected Bertha to skirt the U.S. coast from Florida to Delaware. By late today, they should know just how close it will come to land, Chris Landsea with the National Hurricane Center in Miami said.
“It depends on how close it gets before it makes the turn” due north, Landsea said. “When it’s going to turn is the $64,000 question.”
Late Tuesday, the National Weather Service issued hurricane watches for Georgia and South and North Carolina and a tropical storm warning for Florida. A watch means the hurricane could come close to the area within 36 hours.
Hurricane warnings were in effect Tuesday for the Turks and Caicos Islands and the Bahamas, 250 miles east of Florida.
Bertha became more dangerous early Tuesday, spinning winds up to 115 mph that upgraded it to a Category 3 storm capable of extensive damage. Its size alone - 460 miles around - makes it formidable, said Jerry Jarrell, deputy director of the U.S. Hurricane Center in Miami.
“This is a huge storm - it’s more like Hugo in ‘89 or Gilbert in ‘88,” Jarrell said.
Forecasters earlier had thought Bertha would stay south of the United States. By 8 p.m. PDT, Bertha was about 70 miles east of San Salvador, in the center of the 700-island Bahamas archipelago.
Its wind speed had decreased slightly to 105 mph as it moved toward the northwest at 21 mph, a motion expected to continue for the next 24 hours. That would bring the eye of the storm near or just east of the central and northwestern Bahamas, before it turns north, and then northeast, forecasters said.
In Florida, south Dade County residents victimized by Hurricane Andrew four years ago stocked up at building supply stores and supermarkets, even though forecasters said the state would escape the brunt of Bertha.
“I don’t trust that,” homemaker Suzanne Fishman said as she waited for a supermarket clerk to ring up enough bottled water, candles, family-size juices, toilet paper and pet food to fill a shopping cart.
“Hurricanes change their course very easily, so you can’t rely on the forecasts,” Fishman said. “You kind of have to have a low-level of preparation.”
Bertha brushed by Puerto Rico on Monday, then the Turks and Caicos Tuesday, teasing them with harmless rain showers and gusty winds. But three people died in storm-related accidents in Puerto Rico and one in the Virgin Islands.
Coast Guard officers in Puerto Rico were searching for a crippled boat with as many as 42 people aboard. The boat radioed Monday that it was in the eye of the hurricane and passengers were jumping into the water, the Coast Guard said. There was no sign of the boat Tuesday afternoon.