Erika taking aim at South Florida, but no longer forecast to be a hurricane

Tropical Storm Erika’s Projected path as of 5 a.m. Friday.
Tropical Storm Erika’s Projected path as of 5 a.m. Friday. WEATHER UNDERGROUND

Even as Tropical Storm Erika continued to dump heavy rain in the northern Caribbean, forecasters say the storm could weaken in the next few hours, likely ruling out odds of becoming a hurricane.

But a weaker storm is more likely to make landfall in South Florida early Monday, where winds could still reach up to 60 mph.

At 5 a.m., Erika was located about 155 miles east, southeast of Santo Domingo with sustained winds of 50 mph. The storm was headed west, northwest at about 17 mph, unleashing tropical storm force winds on the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. Those conditions should spread to the Dominican Republic and Haiti later today, where heavy rain could measure as much as a foot.

But as the storm moves across the mountainous islands, forecasters now say Erika is likely to weaken significantly.

While this weakening is likely to aim the storm for Florida, forecasters predict it will no longer be a hurricane by day four or five.

Over the next 12 to 24 hours, they believe the combination of wind shear and high mountains could shred the storm. If it does survive, however, they warn Erika could still rebound in the next two days, with winds topping 60 mph in three days if it lands in Florida early Monday.

With the storm’s future track and strength more certain, emergency managers across the state began making preparations. In Miami-Dade County, Mayor Carlos Gimenez will hold a press conference Friday afternoon. On Thursday, Gov. Rick Scott warned 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 today 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