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 a further burden on communities already hit hard by other storms and disease.

Authorities in Florida have closed beaches, parks and virus testing sites, attaching signs to palm trees so they don’t disappear. The governor said the state was planning power outages and asked residents to have a week’s supply of water, food and medicine. Officials wondered how to prepare shelters where people can take refuge from the storm if necessary, while taking safe social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus.

Authorities in North Carolina have ordered the evacuation of Ocracoke Island, which was criticized by Hurricane Dorian last year. 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 the storm declined steadily throughout Saturday and were near 110 km / h by 5 p.m. when the US National Hurricane Center downgraded its status. But the agency said it is expected to regain strength overnight as it heads over the hot water towards Florida.

The center of the storm is expected to approach Florida’s southeast coast early Sunday morning and then move along the state’s east coast throughout the day. A hurricane is expected to remain until Monday, then slowly weaken as it moves up the Atlantic. Heavy rains, flooding and high winds could hit much of the east coast this 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.

Worries 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 following 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 center of COVID-19 is now in Grand Bahama,” Island Minister Senator Kwasi Thompson told ZNS Bahamas, a government company. “No one wanted to see a situation where we are now facing a hurricane. ”

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.

Paula Miller, Mercy Corps director for the Bahamas, told The Associated Press that residents of Grand Bahama were still lining up for gas on Saturday before the storm.

“People are doing their best to prepare, but a lot of businesses still haven’t completely repaired their roofs or structures,” since Dorian, Miller said. “Even a lower level storm could really push them back. ”

As the storm now moves to the southeast coast of 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.

“The hurricane is not that bad, but I feel the public is really panicking because it’s a hurricane and we are in the middle of a pandemic,” she said.

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.

Still, the pandemic has forced officials to struggle with social distancing rules along with disaster response.

At one of four Palm Beach County shelters on Saturday afternoon, people had their temperatures checked at the door before entering. Public buses transport residents to the shelter as crews work to disinfect buses between stops.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said each person in a shelter should have nearly 4 square meters and cafeteria-style meals would not be allowed. All evacuees infected with the new coronavirus would be isolated in classrooms separating them from the general population, Gimenez said.

Kevin Shelton, the owner of Causeway Mowers in Indian Harbor Beach, Fla., Said his store has been full since Friday. People flocked to buy generators, chainsaws and other supplies. On Saturday mornings, Shelton and his wife served at least 25 customers an hour – double the work they would normally do on weekends.

“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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