ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Isaias snapped trees and knocked out power as it blew through the Bahamas on Saturday and churned toward the Florida coast, threatening to complicate efforts to contain the coronavirus in places were cases are surging.
Isaias weakened from a hurricane to a tropical storm Saturday afternoon, but was expected to regain hurricane strength overnight as it barrels toward Florida.
“We’ll start seeing impacts tonight,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis warned during a news conference. “Don’t be fooled by the downgrade.”
Isaias is piling another burden on communities already hard-hit by other storms and sickness.
Florida authorities closed beaches, parks and virus testing sites, lashing signs to palm trees so they won’t blow away. The governor said the state is anticipating power outages and asked residents to have a week’s supply of water, food and medicine on hand. Officials wrestled with how to prepare shelters where people can seek refuge from the storm if necessary, while safely social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus.
Authorities in North Carolina ordered the evacuation of Ocracoke Island, which was slammed by last year’s Hurricane Dorian. Meanwhile, officials in the Bahamas opened shelters for people in Abaco island to help those who have been living in temporary structures since Dorian devastated the area, killing at least 70 people.
The storm’s maximum sustained winds declined steadily throughout Saturday, and were near 70 miles per hour at 5 p.m., when the U.S. National Hurricane Center downgraded it its status. But the agency said it is expected to pick up strength overnight as it heads over warm water toward Florida.
The center of the storm is forecast to approach the southeast coast of Florida early Sunday morning and then travel along the state’s east coast throughout the day. It is expected to remain a hurricane through Monday then slowly weaken as it climbs up the Atlantic. Heavy rain, flooding and high winds could batter much of the east coast this 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.
Isaias — pronounced ees-ah-EE-ahs — has already been destructive in the Caribbean: On Thursday, before it became a hurricane, it uprooted trees, destroyed crops and homes and caused widespread flooding and small landslides in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. One man died in the Dominican Republic. In Puerto Rico, the National Guard rescued at least 35 people from floodwaters that swept away one woman, whose body was recovered Saturday.
Concerns about the coronavirus and the vulnerability of people who are still recovering from Dorian were adding to worries about the 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 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.”
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.
Paula Miller, Mercy Corps director for the Bahamas, told The Associated Press that people on Grand Bahama were still standing in line for gas on Saturday ahead of the storm.
“People are doing the best they can to prepare, but a lot of businesses still have not fully repaired their roofs or their structures” since Dorian, said Miller. “Even a lower level storm could really set them back.”
As the storm 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 150 miles north. A storm surge watch is in effect for Jupiter Inlet to Ponte Vedra Beach.