Isaias weakens under tropical storm, but is expected to strengthen near Florida

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SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO – Isaias broke trees and cut electricity as he blew through the Bahamas on Saturday and headed for the Florida coast, threatening to complicate efforts to contain the coronavirus in places where the cases are increasing. Isaias weakened from a hurricane to a tropical storm Saturday afternoon, but is expected to regain the strength of the hurricane overnight as it heads towards Florida.

“We will start to see impacts tonight,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis warned at a press conference. “Don’t be fooled by the downgrade. ”

Isaias places another burden on communities already hit hard by previous storms and the pandemic.

Authorities in Florida have closed beaches, parks and virus testing sites, attaching signs to palm trees so they don’t disappear. The governor has warned residents to expect power outages and asked for a week’s supply of water and food. Officials wondered how to prepare shelters so people can seek refuge, if necessary, while safely taking social distance from the virus.

Authorities in North Carolina have ordered the evacuation of Ocracoke Island, which was criticized last year by Hurricane Dorian. Meanwhile, officials in the Bahamas have opened shelters for residents of Abaco Island to help those living in temporary structures since Dorian devastated the region, killing at least 70 people.

Maximum sustained winds from Isaias declined steadily on Saturday and were near 110 km / h around 11 p.m., hours after the US National Hurricane Center downgraded its status. He said Isaias would regain the strengthening from the hurricane on Sunday morning.

On Saturday night, the storm was about 130 kilometers east-southeast of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It was moving northwest at 15 km / h (15 km / h) and is expected to be near the southeast coast of Florida by early Sunday, then veer near or along the state’s Atlantic coast for the day.

Isaias is expected to remain a hurricane until Monday, then slowly weaken as it ascends the Atlantic coast. It is expected to move off the coast of Georgia towards the mid-Atlantic states. Heavy rains, flooding and high winds could hit much of the east coast during the week.

Despite the storm approaching, NASA says the return of two astronauts aboard a SpaceX capsule is still on track for Sunday afternoon. Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken are preparing to make splashdown’s first comeback in 45 years, after two months docked at the International Space Station. They are targeting the Gulf of Mexico just off the Florida Panhandle, and flight controllers are keeping a close eye on the storm.

Isaias – pronounced ees-ah-EE-ahs – has been destructive in the Caribbean before: on Thursday, before it turned into a hurricane, it uprooted trees, destroyed crops and homes, and caused widespread flooding and small landslides in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. A man died in the Dominican Republic. In Puerto Rico, the National Guard rescued at least 35 people from floodwaters that took a woman, whose body was found on Saturday.

Concerns about the coronavirus and the vulnerability of people still recovering from Dorian added to concerns about the storm.

Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Minnis relaxed the coronavirus lockdown due to the storm, but imposed a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew. He said supermarkets, pharmacies, gas stations and hardware stores would be open as long as the weather permitted.

The Bahamas has reported more than 570 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and at least 14 deaths. It recently banned travelers from the United States after an increase in the number of cases after it reopened to international tourism.

As the storm now moves towards Florida, a hurricane warning is in effect from Boca Raton to the Volusia-Flagler County line, which is approximately 240 kilometers to the north. Storm surge monitoring is in effect for Jupiter Inlet at Ponte Vedra Beach.

Coronavirus cases have increased in Florida in recent weeks, and the added threat of a storm has heightened anxiety. State-run virus test sites are closing in areas where the storm could strike because the sites are outdoor tents, which could fall in high winds.

Natalie Betancur, shopping for supplies at a grocery store in Palm Beach Gardens, said the storm itself was not of great concern to her. But, she added, “I feel the public is really panicking because it’s a hurricane and we’re in the middle of a pandemic.”

DeSantis, the governor, said on Saturday that 16 counties had declared a state of emergency, although no immediate evacuation orders were given. The Republican also said hospitals were not being evacuated from the coronavirus or other patients.

Yet the pandemic has forced disaster response officials to grapple with social distancing rules. At one of four Palm Beach County shelters on Saturday afternoon, people had their temperatures checked before entering. Public buses transporting residents to the shelter were disinfected by work teams between stops.

Kevin Shelton, the owner of Causeway Mowers in Indian Harbor Beach, Fla., Said his store had been packed for two days with people flocking to buy generators, chainsaws and other groceries. On Saturday mornings, Shelton and his wife were serving at least 25 customers an hour – double their normal weekend activities.

“We have been in the region for almost 50 years. We watch every storm, ”he said. “He could change in that direction at any time. ”

Anderson reported from St. Petersburg, Florida. Associated Press writers Tamara Lush in Indian Harbor Beach, Florida, and Cody Jackson in Palm Beach County, Florida, contributed.

This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Hallandale Beach. It also fixes the start of an evacuation on Ocracoke Island in North Carolina. Visitors were invited to leave on Friday, and residents and landowners from Saturday morning.

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