Despite uncertainty, Miami-Dade gears up for Erika

Tropical Storm Erika’s projected path as of 11 p.m. Wednesday.
Tropical Storm Erika’s projected path as of 11 p.m. Wednesday.

If Tropical Storm Erika survives a pass near Puerto Rico and Hispaniola this week, Miami-Dade County emergency managers say they’re bracing for tropical storm force winds as early as Sunday.

Over the next two days, Erika is expected to sweep past the Leeward Islands and head toward Puerto Rico and Hispaniola, but what happens after that is less clear. On Wednesday evening, National Hurricane Center forecasters said the storm was “poorly organized” as it encountered the same dry air and high winds that helped weaken Danny. If Erika makes it past the eastern edge of the Greater Antilles, forecasters say the storm could reorganize in more hurricane-friendly territory near the Bahamas.

At 11 p.m. Wednesday, Erika was located about 110 miles east, southeast of Antigua with sustained winds of 45 mph. The storm was moving west at 16 mph, but is expected to slow over the next 48 hours.

While forecasts beyond three days are far less certain, Miami-Dade County emergency workers are gearing up just in case.

“What we’re telling people now is if you have a plan, good. Stay informed. If you don’t have a plan, you shouldn’t be wasting any time,” said Curtis Sommerhoff, director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management.

Since it grew into a tropical storm Monday night, Erika has proved hard to pin down because of a spread in computer models. On Wednesday evening, some of those models, but not all, had shifted the storm to a more northerly track, a good thing for South Florida. Because the models remained spread out, forecasters opted to keep South Florida in a cone projecting a Category 1 hurricane Monday. Still, forecasters warned the track could easily change because long-range projections have such a large margin of error: 180 miles by day four, and 240 miles by day five.

“That’s a lot of real estate,” said hurricane center spokesman and meteorologist Dennis Feltgen.

How Erika responds to the dry air it encounters through the week — and how closely it swings by Puerto Rico and Hispaniola where mountain ranges could weaken it — also will help determine whether the storm can take advantage of conditions around the Bahamas and intensify.

“I know there’s a lot of hype that we’re in the cone,” said Brian McNoldy, a senior research associate at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science. “But there is tremendous uncertainty with this storm because in three days, it might not even be a storm.”

But Erika poses a close enough call that emergency managers, who have repeatedly voiced concern over public apathy after a hurricane-free decade, swung into action. Sommerhoff said Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez is ready to warn the public on Friday depending on the storm’s path. Shelters also could be opened and other emergency measures taken Saturday, he said.

The county also has beefed up information provided on its website, including storm surge software that allows residents to enter addresses to find out whether they live in an evacuation zone. The website also includes a list of grocery stores and gas stations outfitted with generators, which Sommerhoff said will be updated if the storm hits.

“A lot of our actions will have to take place Friday to Saturday,” he said. “So the best thing to do is obviously stay tuned to the information.”

Across the Caribbean, governments ordered schools, airports and even casinos shut in advance of the storm. Forecasters say Erika could dump three to five inches of rain, with some parts of the the Leeward Islands, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic receiving as much as eight inches through Friday.

All airports in the U.S. Virgin Islands are closed to incoming flights until Friday while airlines based in Puerto Rico and Antigua also canceled flights.

Wednesday evening, forecasters maintained tropical storm warnings for Anguilla, Saba, St. Eustatius, St. Maarten, St. Martin, St. Barthelemy, Montserrat, Antigua, Barbuda, St. Kitts, Nevis, Puerto Rico, Vieques, Culebra, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the British Virgin Islands. Tropical storm watches were issued for Guadeloupe, the north coast of the Dominican Republic from Cabo Engano to Cabo Frances Viejo, the Southeastern Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands.

Related stories from Miami Herald