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Dealers across southeast brace as Hurricane Dorian looms off coast

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Auto retailers in the southeast United States prepared for Hurricane Dorian, which neared the Abaco Islands Sunday after gaining intensity, with the threat of a direct strike on South and Central Florida's Atlantic coast diminishing.

The Category 5 storm, with maximum sustained winds of 165 mph, was about 115 miles east of West Palm Beach, Fla., on Monday morning, inching along at about 1 mile per hour, the National Hurricane Center said.

Dorian is expected to lurk off the east coast of Florida late Monday through Tuesday night, the center added.

Whether it makes landfall in Florida, Georgia or the Carolinas remains uncertain, forecasters say. Warnings of major storm surges along the coast also were issued. 

"This is a life-threatening situation," the National Hurricane Center wrote in a Monday morning post. "Persons located within these areas should take all necessary actions to protect life and property from rising water and the potential for other dangerous conditions. Promptly follow evacuation and otherinstructions from local officials."

The storm could make landfall in Georgia or the Carolinas as late as Thursday after losing some of its strength, the National Hurricane Center said earlier.

The powerful storm is still dangerous, and much of Florida remains in the area that forecasters believe could be struck by heavy wind, rain and storm surge.

It was upgraded to a Category 4 system late Friday, and on Sunday became a Category 5 with winds topping 180 mph. It was hammering the Bahamas on Monday morning. 

A stretch of Florida’s Atlantic coast from Deerfield Beach to the Sebastian Inlet was placed under a tropical storm warning on Sunday, indicating the possibility of strong winds in the next 48 hours. And a tropical storm watch was issued for a stretch of Florida's coast from Golden Beach to Deerfield Beach.

South Carolina's governor declared a state of emergency on Saturday.

Earl Stewart, whose Earl Stewart Toyota is but 1,000 yards from the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway in Lake Park, reflected the experience of a state where it's more common to see a hurricane season with a storm than without one.

"We've been through several hurricanes," Stewart told Automotive News. "We've never had any broken glass. It just doesn't happen the way people think it does. All the trees with coconuts were trimmed and people do all that."

Pointing to the windows in his empty showroom Thursday, Stewart added, "This is probably high-impact glass."

Any real damage to the store would be the psychological effects on his customers, he said, as Floridians tend to put off vehicle purchases and repairs in lieu of hurricane preparation.

At a Publix grocery store across the street from Stewart's store, customers were said to be waiting in line before the store opened on Friday morning because it ran out of water on Thursday.

Dealer groups prepare

AutoNation said all six of its Palm Beach stores and collision centers would be closed on Monday. Stores in the Miami area wills stay open, the retailer said. 

"Possible store closures will continue to be evaluated to ensure that everyone has ample time to secure their homes and families in addition to their store locations if it becomes necessary to do so," AutoNation told employees on Sunday. "Please continue to monitor your local media outlets for the most updated information regarding the forecast path of the storm."

The company's internal communications hub in Dallas is giving updates to the company twice daily. 

CarMax closed 10 stores in Florida at the end of business on Friday to allow employees time to prepare for the storm. "We will continue to monitor the situation and support our associates," Darren Newberry, CarMax' senior vice president of store operations, said in an email.

The state was under a declaration of emergency Friday. Gov. Ron DeSantis said Thursday he has activated 2,500 members of the National Guard, with 1,500 more on standby. "With Hurricane Dorian strengthening, I have sent a letter to President Donald Trump requesting that he declare a pre-landfall disaster for all of Florida's 67 counties," DeSantis said in a statement.

Florida Automobile Dealers Association President Ted Smith said dealers are securing inventory and working with insurers.

Protecting inventory

Some dealerships are expected to store their inventory in garages, Smith said, while others will surround newer inventory with older models on an exposed lot to help shield new cars and light trucks from the brunt of wind damage. Buildings, despite sturdy construction, are susceptible to wind that blows through service bay doors, Smith said, making hurricanes "absolutely catastrophic events for a dealership."

"They're as ready as they can be," Smith told Automotive News.

Making matters worse: The storm's trajectory threatens to upend Labor Day holiday showroom traffic, when dealers endeavor to meet month-end sales goals during what is often a busy period.

Smith said many auto insurers suspend writing new policies when hurricane alerts have been issued. That means buyers looking for a new vehicle -- and aren't transferring existing coverage from a trade-in model -- likely won't be able to purchase until the hurricane emergency has passed.

"It couldn't have happened at a worse time," he said of Dorian.

The Florida dealers' association has a charitable foundation that has been used in the past to assist employees of dealerships damaged by hurricanes, and it stands ready to help after Dorian, Smith said.

"We'd like to pray this storm back into the ocean," Smith added, "but if that doesn't happen, we'll do the best we can."

Tom Worobec contributed to this report.

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