Isaias weakens but expected to regain hurricane strength as it nears virus-weary Florida
Tropical storm upending efforts to control spread of COVID-19 in hard-hit Florida
Isaias snapped trees and knocked out power as it blew through the Bahamas on Saturday and weakened to a tropical storm as it churned toward the Florida coast, where it still threatened to complicate efforts to contain the coronavirus in a hot spot.
The storm, which is expected to regain hurricane strength as it nears Florida, is piling another burden on communities already hit hard by other storms and sickness.
Florida authorities closed beaches, parks and virus testing sites. Though officials do not expect to have to evacuate residents, they wrestled with how to prepare shelters where people can seek refuge from the storm if necessary while safely physical distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
"The most important thing we want people to do now is remain vigilant," Gov. Ron DeSantis said.
Authorities in North Carolina ordered the evacuation of Ocracoke Island, which was slammed by last year's Hurricane Dorian, starting Saturday evening. Meanwhile, officials in the Bahamas cleared people out of Abaco island who have been living in temporary structures since Dorian devastated the area, killing at least 70 people.
Isaias's maximum sustained winds dipped steadily Saturday and were near 110 km/h around 11 p.m. ET, hours after the U.S. National Hurricane Center downgraded its status. It said Isaias would regain hurricane strengthen by early Sunday.
By Saturday night, the storm was about 130 kilometres southeast of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. It was moving northwest at 15 km/h and expected to be near Florida's southeast coast early Sunday, then tack near or along the state's Atlantic coast during the day.
Isaias is expected to remain a hurricane through Monday, then slowly weaken on its climb up the Atlantic seaboard. It's expected to move offshore of the coast of Georgia en route toward the mid-Atlantic states. Heavy rain, flooding and high winds could batter much of the East Coast during the week.
Despite the approaching storm, 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 the first splashdown return in 45 years after two months docked at the International Space Station. They are aiming for the Gulf of Mexico just off the Florida Panhandle, and flight controllers are keeping close watch on the storm.
The storm has already been destructive in the Caribbean: On Thursday, while still a tropical storm, Isaias uprooted trees, destroyed crops and caused widespread flooding and small landslides in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.
One man died in the Dominican Republic, where more than 5,000 people were evacuated, hundreds of homes were damaged or destroyed and more than 130 communities were cut off by floodwaters.
In Puerto Rico, the National Guard rescued at least 35 people from floodwaters that swept away one woman, whose body was recovered on Saturday.
WATCH | Puerto Rico hit by Isaias:
Concerns about the coronavirus and the vulnerability of people who are still recovering from Dorian were adding to worries about the Category 1 storm.
Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Minnis relaxed a coronavirus lockdown as a result of 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 weather permitted.
"The centre of COVID-19 now is in Grand Bahama," the island's minister, Sen. Kwasi Thompson, told government-run ZNS Bahamas. "No one wanted to see a situation where we are now facing a hurricane."
The Bahamas has reported more than 570 confirmed COVID-19 cases and at least 14 deaths. It recently barred travellers from the U.S. following a surge in cases after it reopened to international tourism.
Paula Miller, Mercy Corps director for the Bahamas, told The Associated Press that people on the island were still standing in line for gas on Saturday ahead of the storm.
The area was still recovering from Dorian, complicating preparations for this one.
"People are doing the best they can to prepare, but a lot of businesses still have not fully repaired their roofs or their structures," Miller said. "Even a lower-level storm could really set them back."
Storm complicates Florida's COVID-19 efforts
As it moves now toward the southeast coast of Florida, a hurricane warning is in effect from Boca Raton to the Volusia-Flagler county line, which lies about 240 kilometres north. A hurricane watch was in effect from Hallendale Beach to south of Boca Raton. A hurricane warning means that hurricane conditions are expected somewhere within the area, and a watch means they are possible.
Florida has been a coronavirus hot spot in the United States in recent weeks, and the storm is upending some efforts to control the virus. State-run testing sites are closing in areas where the storm might hit because the sites are outdoor tents, which could topple in high winds.
DeSantis, the governor, said Saturday that 12 counties have adopted states of emergency, although no immediate evacuation orders have been given. He also said that hospitals are not being evacuated of coronavirus or other patients.
President <a href="https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@realDonaldTrump</a> has approved my request for a pre-landfall emergency declaration for the counties in the path of Hurricane <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Isaias?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Isaias</a>. This will help our state respond quickly to any impacts from the storm.—@GovRonDeSantis
The Republican governor told a morning news conference that the state is prepared with stockpiles of personal protective equipment, generators, bottled water and meals ready to be distributed.
The pandemic forced officials to wrestle with physical-distancing rules at the same time as disaster response.
For example, in Marion County, Fla., officials say people would be provided facial coverings if they have to go to shelters. The facilities will have sanitizers and personal protective equipment if needed, although they would prefer people bring their own PPE.
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said each person in a shelter needed to have 40 square feet, and no more cafeteria-style dining would be allowed. Any evacuees infected with the novel coronavirus would be isolated in classrooms to separate them from the general population, Gimenez said.
Kevin Shelton, the owner of Causeway Mowers in Indian Harbour Beach, Fla., said his store has been packed since Friday. People streamed in to buy generators, chainsaws and other provisions. On Saturday morning, Shelton and his wife served at least 25 customers an hour, which is double the business they'd normally do on a weekend.
"They're not saying much about COVID, they're just making sure they have the proper supplies," he said. "We've been in the area almost 50 years. We keep an eye on every storm. Every time we have a storm, we take it seriously. It could shift in this direction at any moment."