Heavy rain from Tropical Storm Erika has caused devastation on the Caribbean island of Dominica, leaving at least 12 people dead and more than 20 missing as Florida declared a statement of emergency while the storm churns toward the peninsula, authorities said.
Erika’s center was headed toward the Dominican Republic on Friday morning, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center. Rain from the storm also affected the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, the center said.
Erika is expected to remain a tropical storm as it approaches South Florida on Monday. However, the hurricane center says conditions are volatile and that could change in the coming days.
“The very latest is not what you went to bed with last night,” CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said Friday. “This is going to be a rainmaker — it’s not going to be a wind-maker that blows every building down.”
Dominica’s Prime Minister, Roosevelt Skerrit, said Erika caused “extensive damage” across the small island after floods wiped out roads and swamped villages.
He expressed particular concern for Petite Savanne, a community hit by mudslides that rescuers haven’t been able to reach yet.
“This is where many are feared lost,” Skerrit said.
The immediate focus for authorities is on search-and-rescue efforts, with other countries in the region providing helicopters and other assistance.
Skerrit said the task of repairing Dominica’s “dramatically affected” infrastructure would come later, estimating that the cost of fixing homes, roads, bridges and other structures would run into tens of millions of dollars.
Storm warning from Puerto Rico to the Bahamas
The Prime Minister posted photos on his Facebook page of roads washed away by muddy floodwater and a video of a raging river spilling over its banks and swamping cars in a built-up area.
By late Thursday, the center of Erika had moved west-northwest, and Dominica was getting some relief from the downpours. The storm is forecast to gain strength as it nears Florida early next week.
The tropical storm warning in place currently includes islands from Puerto Rico to the Bahamas.
Erika was expected to produce rainfall of 4 to 8 inches — with a maximum of 12 inches possible — across parts of the Leeward Islands (which can include Dominica), the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, the Turks and Caicos Islands, and the southeast Bahamas through Saturday.
“These rains could cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides,” the National Hurricane Center said.
Erika’s maximum sustained winds were 50 mph, with higher gusts, the forecasting center said early Friday. Tropical storm-force winds extended outward up to 150 miles from the storm’s center, it said.
‘Erika has wreaked havoc’
Natalie John, the chief executive officer of Dreamy Weddings & Tours Inc., said her staff and friends in Dominica “aren’t doing so well.”
“Erika has wreaked havoc there,” said John, who lives farther north on the island of St. Kitts.
An employee on Dominica told her that a friend’s family was missing after their house was swept away, she said.
At least one of Dominica’s airports was badly damaged. Photos of Douglas-Charles Airport on the Prime Minister’s Facebook page showed a flooded runway and a small plane with water up to its doors.
Erika’s winds, light for a tropical storm, could weaken a bit as the system moves over Hispaniola on Friday. The island is home to the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
“Some weakening is forecast today as Erika moves over land, followed by little change in strength through Saturday,” the hurricane center said Friday.
Florida ports told to prepare
Florida Gov. Rick Scott has declared a state of emergency as Tropical Storm Erika heads toward his state. The storm’s center is approaching the Dominican Republic and is expected to hit Florida early Monday morning, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center.
The U.S. Coast Guard warned ports in the south of the state late Thursday to prepare for the possibility of sustained gale-force winds within 72 hours.
“Mariners are reminded that there are no safe havens in these facilities and that ports are safest when the inventory of vessels is at a minimum,” the Coast Guard statement said. “All oceangoing commercial vessels and oceangoing barges greater than 500 gross tons should make plans for departing the port.”