Even as Hispaniola’s mountain peaks threatened to cripple Tropical Storm Erika Friday, South Florida braced for heavy rain.
On Friday, forecasters with the National Hurricane Center said a pass over the Dominican Republic and Haiti could weaken Erika to a tropical depression overnight. The struggling storm could even dissipate into a tropical wave, they said. While they warned the storm could regain strength as it slows over warm waters in the Bahamas, they no longer expect it to make landfall in Florida as a hurricane.
At 11 p.m. Friday, Erika was located about 40 miles west of Port-au-Prince, with sustained winds of 45 mph. The storm was moving about 20 mph with tropical storm force winds extending 140 miles. Forecasters expect the storm’s center to near the Gulf of Gonave early Saturday and the far east end of Cuba or the southeastern Bahamas Saturday afternoon, with a turn to the northwest on Sunday or early Monday.
While Florida may dodge Erika’s heavy winds — forecasters said they were holding off issuing watches for the state until the storm moves past Haiti — the same heavy rain that caused flooding and mudslides in Dominica could drench parts of the state. At least 20 people died on the island. Another 31 were missing.
And in Haiti, where past storms led to fatal mudslides, the government shut down international airports in Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haitien and ordered the evacuation of two coastal cities. Officials also worried hundreds of families living in two border camps who fled the Dominican Republic after the country tightened immigration rules could be at risk. About 65,000 Haitians still live in tents and hundreds of thousands inhabit unsafe housing on mountains prone to mudslides, near rivers and along the coastline.
“We’re relocating them to two schools,” Haiti's communication minister Rotchild Francois said of the border camps. “We've asked for all who are living in high-risk areas to begin evacuating.”
Francois said the government has identified 1,966 shelters throughout the country that could hold 340,407 people.
Officials also banned travel along the country’s highways between the capital and major cities, including Les Cayes in the south and Cap-Haitien in the north until further notice.
In Florida, with the storm still threatening heavy rain, Gov. Rick Scott maintained a state of emergency declared earlier in the day.
After a visit to the Miami-Dade County Emergency Operations Center to meet with emergency managers and Mayor Carlos Gimenez, Scott said Florida is more likely to get less wind but heavy rain as the storm shifts west, where Tampa and the west coast are already saturated from heavy summer rains. The National Guard has been alerted, with about 8,000 members ready to mobilize if needed, he said.
“We've got concerns all across the state because we know it’s going to be coming clear across the state,” he said. “There’s so many people who’ve moved here since we had a hurricane. That’s one of our big concerns.”
Gimenez said localized flooding, particularly in coastal areas, posed a broader concern.
“There is a seasonal high tide going on right now. Tides are somewhat higher than normal,” said Gimenez, a former fire chief for Miami. “It may not be we can get rid of the water as quickly as we want.”
As much as 10 inches could fall over mountainous Hispaniola, raising concerns about flash floods and mudslides. On Friday, Haiti disaster experts continued to warn people to remain alert.
“It has the capacity to bring a lot of rain,” chief meteorologist Ronald Semelfort said.
With the entire country under threat, the Civil Protection Office posted updates on Twitter and aired radio spots tracking the storm’s path and warning about the possible dangers.
On its current track, Erika is expected to near Florida late Sunday or early Monday morning.
Across South Florida, emergency managers began making preparations. The state’s Division of Emergency Management kicked into gear, urging residents to visit its website for help making plans.
Miami-Dade school officials say students will have to wait until the weekend to learn whether schools will open Monday.
Since buses can’t operate in winds over 39 miles per hour — and more than 60,000 students ride buses — officials are keeping a close eye on forecasts. Another factor: whether schools will be used as shelters if people have to evacuate.
“For Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the safety and security of students and staff is our No. 1 priority, and will always be the most important factor in our decisions,” Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said in a statement.
Should the storm close schools, the district is hoping a new electronic reporting system for principals will make reopening schools quicker and easier. A new app will allow school leaders to report damages or problems quickly.
At Miami Dade College, officials are planning to meet Saturday and Sunday, said spokesman Juan Mendieta. For updates, check the school web site, www.mdc.edu, or call 305-237-7500.
Florida Power and Light also began mobilizing its crews, with 5,500 workers and contractors ready to respond and another 1,700 staff members at other utilities on standby.
“FPL is taking this storm seriously,” said Manny Miranda, senior vice president of power delivery for FPL. “We’re also asking customers to make safety their top priority.”
To prepare for potential flooding, the South Florida Water Management District, which covers 16 counties, began lowering water levels in canals at noon. The district will also keep a close watch on Lake Okeechobee and its aging dike. Because of a slow wet season, lake levels are unusually low, at just under 13 feet, said Jeff Kivet, the district’s director of Operations, Engineering and Construction. Once the storm hits, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will close gates to prevent any downstream flooding.
Pump operators will also be working round the clock, he said, so will be able to respond depending on conditions.
In flood-prone Miami Beach, officials said they were keeping a close eye on streets in vulnerable areas.
“Although Miami Beach and Florida Department of Transportation installed stormwater pump stations to assist with the flooding, the program is not complete,” officials said in a statement.
The city also canceled all city events and meetings on Sunday and Monday and said the South Pointe Pier will be closed Sunday.
In South Miami-Dade County, prone to flooding, the county will provide sand for sand bags at eight locations, said Commissioner Dennis Moss. To find out where, call 311 or visit www.miamidade.gov/hurricane.
Across the Caribbean, where drought conditions have persisted in recent months, emergency managers remain concerned about flooding and mudslides. In Dominica, where Erika caused rivers to overflow and roads and bridges to collapse, 31 people remain missing while 20 have been confirmed dead. Among the dead: an elderly blind man and two children killed when a mudslide engulfed their home in the southeast. Another man was found dead in the capital following a mudslide at his home.
People on the island told of narrowly escaping raging floods as Erika downed trees and power lines and swept cars down streets, ripping scaffolding off some buildings.
“I was preparing to go to work when all of a sudden I heard this loud noise and saw the place flooded with water,” said Shanie James, a 30-year-old mother who works at a bakery. “We had to run for survival.”
Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit, who was out of the country but flew back Thursday, posted photos of the storm’s damage on his Facebook page. Among the photos: a collapsed road, submerged cars and flooding at the island-nation’s Douglas-Charles Airport.
In Puerto Rico, Erika took out power to 200,000 people and could dump another one to two inches of rain today. Forecasters warn the additional rain could cause flooding and mudslides.
On Friday, tropical storm warnings remained in effect for the Dominican Republic, Haiti, the southeastern Bahamas, the Turks and Caicos Islands and the central Bahamas. A watch was in effect for the Northwestern Bahamas, the Cuban Provinces of Ciego de Avila, Camaguey, Las Tunas, Holguin, and Guantánamo. Warnings for Puerto Rico have been discontinued.
Staff writers Jacqueline Charles, Joey Flechas, Doug Hanks and Christina Veiga, as well as The Associated Press, contributed to this report.