Hurricane Isaias has been downgraded to a tropical storm as it moves through the Northwestern Bahamas.
Isaias winds have decreased slightly with the storm expected to reach Florida overnight.
The storm snapped trees and knocked out power as it ripped through the Caribbean country on Saturday and headed toward the Florida coast.
Officials on the U.S. mainland are sterilizing evacuation centers and stocking them with protective gear in a desperate bid to avoid spurring new cases of coronavirus in the already hard-hit state.
‘Preparations to protect life and property should be rushed to completion,’ the National Weather Service said in a flash bulletin on Saturday. ‘Hurricane conditions are expected to reach the coast within the hurricane warning area in Florida tonight and will spread northward through Sunday.’
‘Winds are expected to first reach tropical storm strength later today, making outside preparations difficult or dangerous,’ the NWS said.
Landfall is expected in South Florida overnight with storm tracks predicting the hurricane will veer north along the coast, threatening Georgia and the Carolinas on Sunday into Monday, and reaching New York City as early as Tuesday.
A hurricane warning is in effect from Boca Raton to the Flagler/Volusia County Line in Florida.
Tropical storm warnings are in effect from the northern Florida Keys to Boca Raton and inland and north to Orlando, Florida, including Lake Okeechobee. They also extend from the Volusia-Flagler County line to Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.
Strong winds are currently moving across South Florida with the first band of rain from Isaias according to Weather.com.
Wind gusts between 40-60mph were reported across various South Florida locations with a 59mph wind gust measured near Dania Beach.
Florida authorities said they have prepared shelters, but didn’t expect to have to evacuate people.
‘The most important thing we want people to do now is remain vigilant,’ said Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Further north, authorities in North Carolina ordered the evacuation of Ocracoke Island, which was slammed by last year’s Hurricane Dorian, starting Saturday evening.
Isaias had maximum sustained winds of 80 miles per hour at 11am Saturday morning, a slight decline from earlier in the day, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
Florida’s well-honed hurricane responses have been partly upended by its grappling with one of the country’s worst outbreaks of the novel coronavirus.
The emergency operations center in Miami, usually a beehive of activity ahead of a storm, was mostly empty with plastic dividers set up between work stations and fans with ultraviolet lights hung around the room in the hope of eradicating any floating virus particles. Many emergency officials are instead working remotely.
‘It’s not a perfect system,’ said Frank Rollason, Miami-Dade’s director of emergency management, ‘but what we’re facing to today with COVID, we’re trying to avoid packing all of those people into the emergency operations center.
Though there were fears the hurricane would delay the return of a historic mission to the International Space Station, NASA said on Friday that separation and splashdown would go forward as scheduled.
Astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken took part in a farewell ceremony Saturday at the International Space Station, several hours ahead of their planned departure on a SpaceX Dragon capsule.
Splashdown is set for Sunday afternoon in the Gulf of Mexico, and will be the first splashdown for astronauts in 45 years.
On Florida’s Atlantic coast, a hurricane warning was in effect from Boca Raton, just north of Miami, about 150 miles north to the Volusia-Flagler county line. A hurricane watch was in effect from Hallendale Beach to south of Boca Raton.
The state was ‘fully prepared for this and any future storm during this hurricane season,’ DeSantis said, with stockpiles of personal protective equipment, generators, bottled water and meals ready to be distributed.
But DeSantis said state-run coronavirus testing sites would be closed in areas where the storm might hit.
‘Our sites, because they´re outdoors with tents, if it were to get 40-, 50-mile-per-hour winds, it would just collapse,’ he said. ‘Safety is paramount for that.’
The closure of COVID-19 testing sites is concerning in a state that has been a hot spot in the United States in recent weeks. The pandemic forced officials to wrestle with social-distancing rules at the same time as disaster response.
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Giménez said each person in shelters needed to have 40 square feet and no more cafeteria-style dining would be allowed.
Any evacuees infected with the new coronavirus will be isolated in classrooms separate them from the general population, Giménez said.
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.
The center of the storm is expected to move over northern Andros Island in the next hours, on to Grand Bahama Island in the northwestern Bahamas later in the day then near the east coast of Florida overnight through Sunday. It is expected to weaken slowly late Monday.
A hurricane warning was in effect for northwest Bahamas. Isaias was expected to drop from 4 to 8 inches of rain in the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands.
Bahamian officials said they were concerned about a Category 1 storm hitting amid the coronavirus pandemic.
‘The center 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.’
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,’ she said. ‘Even a lower level storm could really set them back.’
In the Bahamas, Prime Minister Hubert Minnis relaxed a coronavirus lockdown as a result of the storm, but imposed a 10pm to 5am curfew. He said supermarkets, pharmacies, gas stations and hardware stores would be open as long as weather permitted.
The Bahamas has reported more than 570 confirmed COVID-19 cases and at least 14 deaths. It recently barred travelers from the U.S. following a surge in cases after it reopened to international tourism.
On Thursday, while still a tropical storm, Isaias toppled trees, knocked out power, 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 who remained missing.
SOURCE: Daily Mail, Keith Griffin