A strengthening Erika causes fatal mudslides in Dominica, heads toward Hispaniola

Tropical Storm Erika’s projected path as of 11 p.m. Thursday.
Tropical Storm Erika’s projected path as of 11 p.m. Thursday. WEATHER UNDERGROUND

Tropical Storm Erika, which unleashed deadly mudslides in Dominica on Thursday, has taken a turn toward Hispaniola, setting up a collision with the island nation that could decide what happens in South Florida.

At 11 p.m., Erika was located 135 miles south, southeast of San Juan with maximum sustained winds of 45 mph. Erika continued at 17 mph on its westward course, dumping more than 12 inches of rain overnight on Dominica, where four people died in severe flooding and mudslides. On Sunday and Monday, National Hurricane Center forecasters say the storm could begin to turn toward the north, although they warn that the long-range outlook remains uncertain.

In the meantime, forecasters predict more heavy rain — four to eight inches, with a foot possible in some areas — early Friday as the storm nears the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, where drought conditions have increased the risk of flash floods and mudslides.

Erika is still predicted to become a hurricane by Monday, but it faces several hurdles first. Over the next 48 hours, the storm will likely continue to encounter strong wind shear. Depending on how close it comes to Hispaniola, it could also be crippled by the island’s high mountains. But a weaker storm could also mean trade winds point Erika more directly at South Florida.

“Its center continues to drift a little to the south, which means it’s going to have a tough time avoiding Hispaniola, and that would tilt the balance,” said Weather Underground meteorologist Jeff Masters. “It’s more of a threat to Miami the weaker the storm is.”

Even with the storm’s future track and strength uncertain, emergency managers across the state began making preparations Thursday. Early in the day, Gov. Rick Scott held a brief press conference in Tallahassee warning residents to load up on supplies, including three days’ worth of food and water. The state’s Division of Emergency Management also kicked into gear, urging residents to visit its website for help making plans.

At the South Florida Water Management District, officials said they would decide Friday whether to lower water levels in canals or take other measures to control potential flooding.

“[Friday] afternoon, we’ll have a pretty good sign of what we expect,” said Jeff Kivet, the district’s director of Operations, Engineering and Construction, who said some rain could help drought conditions in Miami-Dade County and parts of Broward, where canals are already low.

Drought has also gripped much of the Caribbean, heightening the risk of flooding and mudslides.

In Dominica, where heavy rain triggered fatal mudslides on the southeast side of the island, Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit 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.

Skerrit, who was out of the country and flying back on a helicopter provided by the government of Trinidad and Tobago, said emergency workers were concentrating on search-and-rescue efforts with help from Venezuela, which had sent a helicopter. Skerrit said roads had also been cut off to one village in the mountainous Eastern Caribbean nation.

“The country has been badly beaten,” he said. “We can always replace a bridge. The sadness is about the potential loss of life in Dominica. Our hope is that those persons who are missing will be located alive.”

Puerto Rico, which is experiencing a historic drought and could be helped by Erika’s rain, is also vulnerable to flash-flooding. And on Hispaniola, home to the Dominican Republic and Haiti, rain can easily lead to fatal mudslides.

What path the storm will take remains uncertain as models — some based on global projections and some on shorter-range tropical conditions — continue to disagree. An American global model favored by forecasters calls for a stronger hurricane winding up the coast. But a reliable European model has predicted a weaker storm.

“We have two ends of the spectrum here,” said Mike Seidel, a meteorologist with the Weather Channel. “The problem right now is until Saturday, Erika is dealing with a lot of wind shear. All the thunderstorms are not wrapped around the center so Erika can’t strengthen.”

While those winds helped snuff out Danny, a compact storm, Erika is spread across a much larger area. With tropical storm-force winds extending about 140 miles, Erika is proving to be a tougher foe. Forecasters expect to get a better handle on Erika once they see how close the storm comes to Hispaniola’s hurricane-shredding mountains Saturday.

“It’s got to get through these hurdles. It has to survive the shear and the topography,” Seidel said. “At this point, we really have to wait to see.”

On Thursday evening, forecasters expanded tropical storm warnings to include the Dominican Republic, from the northern border with Haiti eastward and southward to Isla Saon; the Southeastern Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands. Warnings also remained in effect for Puerto Rico, Vieques, Culebra, the U.S. Virgin Islands, British Virgin Islands, St. Martin and St. Barthelemy. Tropical storm watches remain for the central Bahamas.

Staff writer Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report

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