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Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands brace for Isaac

Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands brace for torrential rains as Tropical Storm Isaac whips up waves as high as 3 metres in the Caribbean and threatens to become a hurricane.

Storm could become hurricane, U.S. forecasters say

Tropical storm Isaac is expected to approach Hispaniola later today or early Friday. Watches and warnings are in effect for Haiti, the Dominican Republic and many of the Caribbean Islands. (Weather Underground/Associated Press)

Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands braced for torrential rains on Thursday as Tropical Storm Isaac whipped up waves as high as 3 metres in the Caribbean and threatened to become a hurricane that could take a shot at Florida.

Some flooding was reported in eastern and southern regions of Puerto Rico as the storm approached.

U.S. forecasters said Isaac will likely turn into a Category 1 hurricane by Friday as it nears the Dominican Republic and Haiti. It was expected to weaken a little while heading over their island and the eastern two-thirds of Cuba.

The storm was projected to head toward Florida as a hurricane by Monday, but the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said some forecast models show it could go further west into the Gulf of Mexico, so "significant uncertainty remains about the threat Isaac poses to Florida."

Isaac was centered 255 kilometres south of Puerto Rico early Thursday afternoon, with maximum sustained winds of 65 kph. It was moving west at 24 kph according to the Hurricane Center.

Puerto Ricans head for cover

Puerto Rico opened 428 shelters, and 50 people had taken refuge, said Gov. Luis Fortuno. Some 7,800 people were without power and more than 3,000 without water.

Schools and government offices remained closed Thursday on the U.S. territory, but the governor said it was safe for people to go to work if they needed to. However, he warned everyone to stay away from beaches and swollen rivers.

"It's not the day to participate in recreational activities in these areas," Fortuno said.

Jose Alberto Melendez, 51, disregarded that advice, coming to a beach near Old San Juan.

"It's my birthday," he said. "I had already planned to come to the beach."

He unfolded his chair and turned on the radio just as a squall approached, sending him running for shelter.

While Isaac itself has caused on reported injuries or deaths, police in Puerto Rico say a 75-year-old woman died near the capital of San Juan on Wednesday when she fell off a balcony while filling a drum with water in preparation for the storm.

Puerto Rico's main international airport remained open, but Cape Air and American Eagle cancelled their flights Thursday, Fortuno said. Ferry service to the tourist islands of Vieques and Culebra also was suspended.

In Vieques, one of the owners of Bananas Guesthouse said his brother had called from Florida and suggested he tell reporters "there are mudslides and cows flying through the air. But in fact, there's a breeze going by," Glenn Curry said. "We've had a little bit of rain. Nothing much has happened so far ... Overnight it didn't even blow enough to wake me up."

Handful of stores stay open

In the U.S. Virgin Islands town of Christiansted, streets lined with historic buildings of Danish architecture, were largely deserted. All but a small handful of businesses and government offices were closed. Hurricane shutters covered the entrances to most buildings and sandbags were stacked in anticipation of potential floods and storm surge.

In St. Croix, the owners of Turtle's, a seaside restaurant, were baking bread for sandwiches, selling coffee and snacks to the few passersby and fielding calls from people about the weather.

"Yes, we're open," Mary Scribner said cheerily. "No, it's not raining!"

The Scribners pulled out sandbags in case the predicted storm surge or flooding impacted their business, but by midmorning, the sandbags still sat in a pile in the corner.

The storm already forced military authorities at the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to cancel pretrial hearings for five prisoners charged in the Sept. 11 attacks. They also were evacuating about 200 people, including legal teams and relatives of Sept. 11 victims.

Residents evacuated

In the Dominican Republic, meanwhile authorities began to evacuate people living in low-lying areas but encountered some resistance.

"Nobody wants to leave their homes for fear they'll get robbed," said Francisco Mateo, community leader of the impoverished La Cienaga neighborhood in Santo Domingo.

Businesses and schools were reopening in islands such as St. Kitts and Dominica following the storm's passage late Wednesday.

"Dominica has been spared the full brunt of Tropical Storm Isaac," said Disaster Coordinator Don Coriette. "We want to thank the almighty God for that."

Meanwhile, another tropical storm, Joyce, formed over the open water of the eastern Atlantic. Forecasters said it does not pose an immediate threat to land. The Hurricane Center in Miami said Thursday the storm has maximum sustained winds of 65 kph. Little change in strength was expected in the next 48 hours.

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