Tropical Storm Erika lashed Puerto Rico early Friday with heavy rains and wind after killing four people and causing devastating floods in the eastern Caribbean island of Dominica, where several people remained missing.
The storm was following a projected course toward Florida that meteorologists said was far from certain.
Erika was located about 155 miles (250 kilometers) east-southeast of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and was moving west near 17 mph (28 kph), according to the National Hurricane Center. The storm’s maximum sustained winds were near 50 mph (85 kph).
If Erika can emerge from the Caribbean islands relatively intact, the storm is likely to intensify into a hurricane that would most likely bump its path northward toward southeast Florida. Under that scenario, Erika would most likely reach southeast Florida as a Category 1 hurricane on Monday.
If the storm were to lose most of its steam while interacting with the Caribbean islands, though, the wind shear in the area might be strong enough to prevent Erika from reforming, moving its remnants in a more southerly and westerly direction.
“Erika could dissipate before reaching the U.S., could hit as a hurricane, or could miss the coast entirely, depending upon which model you believe,” wrote Jeff Masters, a meteorologist with Weather Underground. “In the short term, we are pretty sure Erika will struggle.”
Todd Barron, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Ruskin, said the storm will almost certainly affect the weather in the Tampa area by Sunday or Monday but said there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding Erika’s path.
If Erika maintains its current course, he said, it likely will hit the state’s southeast coast the hardest, while the Tampa Bay area would experience some side effects. unday night through Tuesday there is the potential for heavy rainfall, along with some gusty winds.
With Erika’s direct impact on the state most likely occuring in South Florida, the Salvation Army in Hillsborough County on Thursday loaded pallets of water onto a truck headed toward Palm Beach County. Gov. Rick Scott was briefed Thursday on the latest threat from Erika.
Erika was expected to dump up to 12 inches (31 centimeters) of rain across portions of the drought-stricken northern Caribbean as it carved a path toward the U.S.
Authorities in Puerto Rico closed certain roads in anticipation of numerous landslides, while rescue crews fanned across Dominica overnight to search for missing and injured people.
“Erika has really, really visited us with a vengeance,” Assistance Police Superintendent Claude Weekes said by phone. “There are many fallen rocks and trees, and water. It’s really chaotic.”
Some 20 people were missing in Dominica, where authorities said an elderly blind man and two children died when a mudslide hit their home in the island’s southeast region. Another man was found dead near his home in the capital of Roseau after a mudslide, but the cause of death could not be immediately determined.
Police in the lush and mountainous island of Dominica expected to reach isolated communities via the ocean because of impassable roads and bridges. The Barbados-based Caribbean Disaster and Emergency Management Agency also pledged assistance. Ronald Jackson, the agency’s executive director, said in a phone interview that at least two helicopters would arrive early Friday in Dominica carrying suppl ies and two medics from Trinidad.
“The only way into Dominica at this time is via helicopter,” he said.
Erika downed trees and power lines in Dominica as it unleashed heavy floods that swept cars down streets and ripped scaffolding off some buildings.
The storm approached Puerto Rico overnight Thursday, prompting Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla to activate the National Guard as a precaution. Officials noted the storm’s outer bands had already downed several trees and power lines across the U.S. territory and caused small landslides. Some 18,000 people were without power, with widespread power outages reported on the popular sister island of Culebra late Thursday.
Garcia said schools and government offices would remain closed on Friday as he warned people to stay indoors.
“We don’t want to report any deaths,” Garcia said. “Use utmost precaution.”
The storm is expected to move near or over the Dominican Republic on Friday as it heads toward th e Turks and Caicos Islands and the Bahamas.
Tropical storm warnings were in effect for areas across the Caribbean including Puerto Rico, Vieques, Culebra, the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, St. Martin and St. Barthelemy.
The Associated Press and Tribune staff writer Mark Wolfenbarger contributed to this report.