Chantal churns toward Hispaniola; South Florida remains at risk

Chantal is shaping up as another close shave.

The tropical storm was on track to strike the southern coast of Hispaniola sometime Wednesday, bringing winds approaching 70 mph, heavy rain and the threat of potentially deadly flooding to the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

How — and if — it survives the crossing could go a long way toward determining Chantal’s potential impact to South Florida or somewhere else along the coast all the way up to North Carolina. At the least, conditions in Miami-Dade, Broward and neighboring counties could turn wet and blustery Friday afternoon as Chantal or its remnants approach the Bahamas and South Florida.

“Whatever it does, it looks like the rain chances are certainly going to increase over the weekend,’’ said Kim Brabander, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Miami. The service was forecasting possible tropical storm conditions for coastal waters on Saturday — but not yet making that call for metro areas.

“It’s really not going to be until Thursday before we know whether it’s going to maintain its intensity,’’ Brabander said.

The National Hurricane Center projected Chantal to weaken as it makes its way over Hispaniola, where the rough and mountainous terrain of Haiti has ripped apart many marginal storms over the years.

But with the storm moving at a brisk 28 mph, forecasters give it a good shot at it hanging together enough to regroup into a 50 mph storm as it approaches the Bahamas. From there, the track could churn uncomfortably close to Florida’s Atlantic coast — much like Hurricane Sandy last year, though with nowhere near the size and strength of that monster storm.

The hurricane center’s 5 a.m. Wednesday advisory showed Chantal weakening with winds of 45 mph. Forecast models kept the core of Chantal off the Florida coast, but center spokesman Dennis Feltgen said some computer models were beginning to nudge the system west, closer to the coastline. The line should sharpen over the next few days. On the plus side, forecasters give Chantal little chance of turning into a hurricane as it approaches South Florida.

“We’ll just have to wait and see,’’ said Feltgen. “The big question mark is what kind of shape will it be in and where does it pop off of Haiti.’’

Curtis Sommerhoff, Miami-Dade’s director of emergency management, said it was too soon to tell what impact Chantal might have, but he urged residents to continue monitoring the storm.

That storm’s speed was helping limit its development, but forecasters said it could still reach 70 mph, just a few short of hurricane strength, before it strikes the southeastern coast of the Dominican Republic sometime Wednesday. Haiti, which occupies the western half of Hispaniola, could start feeling the effects later Wednesday.

Chantal was expected to bring heavy rains across much of the Caribbean, with two to four inches over the Leeward and Windward Islands, three to six inches in Puerto Rico and up to eight inches in the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

In Haiti, where hundreds of thousands of people still live in makeshift tents three years after a devastating 2010 earthquake, the danger from flash floods and mud slides is severe. Storms in 2008 left hundreds dead and thousands homeless. In 2004, Tropical Storm Jeanne killed about 3,000 people in Gonaives.

The United Nations has deployed engineering units in Haiti and remains on standby. The northeast, an area that could be most heavily affected, includes cities like Port-de-Paix, one of Haiti’s most neglected big cities.

Despite the construction of 17 bridges by the previous government, the region still boasts un-asphalted roads that make a regular rain storm difficult to maneuver. In recent weeks, several northern communities have been hammered by damaging flooding.

Miami Herald staff writer Jacqueline Charles, reporting from Port-au-Prince, contributed to this story.