A midnight update from the National Hurricane Center upgraded Tropical Storm Isaias to a Category 1 hurricane a day before earlier predictions called for, while it continued on track toward the Bahamas and South Florida.
The late-night update showed Hurricane Isaias had lost some forward speed but grown more powerful, with 80 mph winds, shortly after passing through Hispaniola..
The center of Isaias was forecast to move near or over the Southeastern Bahamas late Thursday night, then move near or over the Northwestern Bahamas and near South Florida on Saturday.
The storm has already crossed the mountains of Hispaniola while flooding roads and homes in Puerto Rico and blowing roofs away in Haiti.
The tropical storm watch is in effect from Ocean Reef northward to Sebastian Inlet, Florida.
Miami-Dade County also announced that all facilities operated by the Miami-Dade County Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces Department, including beaches and parks, will close by 8 p.m. Friday in preparation for the storm.
The government of the Bahamas has issued a hurricane warning for the Northwestern Bahamas, which includes the Abacos Islands, Grand Bahamas Island and Andros Island.
The Bahamas are the first region to issue a hurricane warning for Isaias.
Forecasters cranked the intensity prediction up a notch to at least a Category 1 hurricane by Saturday morning as it moves through the Bahamas. The impact on South Florida will depend both on the storm’s strength and its proximity to the coast — both still uncertain measures.
“It still needs to be stressed that there is a higher than usual amount of uncertainty in the intensity forecast,” forecasters said.
Water temperatures along Isaias’ predicted path are running three to four degrees above normal, which could fuel a stronger storm. Higher sea surface temperatures are one of the main ways climate change is affecting hurricane formation, and the record-setting heat seen in this region over the summer is one of the reasons scientists predicted this would be an active hurricane season.
At a Thursday evening press conference, Gov. Ron DeSantis urged Floridians to be prepared with seven days worth of food, water and medicine.
“While we can’t be certain of the exact track of the storm, and we certainly can’t be sure about the intensity it’s expected to reach, we do expect to see impacts to the state of Florida, even if the storm remains off our shore, which is the current forecast,” he said.
Neither Miami-Dade nor the state plan to open shelters under the current prediction of a Tropical Storm, dodging — for now — a test of the efficacy of plans to enforce COVID screening and social distancing within hurricane shelters.
“We have 20 shelters basically on stand-by. We’ve sent the equipment that’s needed to open them,” Mayor Carlos Gimenez said in an online press conference Thursday from the county’s Emergency Operations center in Doral before the NHC upped Isaias to a likely hurricane. ”At this point, we’re not opening them,” he said. “We may pull the trigger on opening some shelters, depending on the forecast strength and the direction.”
COVID-19 testing sites across South Florida will be closed from Thursday evening to Tuesday morning.
Roman Gastesi, Monroe County administrator, said the Keys will likely close its government offices on Friday but that no evacuations were planned.
“We can probably make that determination later today or tomorrow morning,” Gastesi said during a Thursday morning conference call with other county and municipal officials. Gastesi was referring to whether they would close their offices.
The latest forecast from the National Weather Service was promising for the Keys, showing the storm progressing up the coast farther east than forecasters predicted yesterday.
If Isaias strengthens as it heads over the Florida Straits, that will be good news for the Keys and South Florida because it means the center will likely stay east of the region, said John Rizzo, warning coordinator meteorologist at National Weather Service Key West.
If it leaves Hispaniola disorganized, the conditions over the Keys are expected to be more dangerous, Rizzo said.
“Only if it weakens do we see strong squalls over the Florida Keys,” Rizzo said.
In Port-de-Paix in Haiti’s northwest region, tops were blown off houses by Isaias’ gusty winds and rains that came on and off throughout the day. The outdoor markets were closed, and the wooden sloops that normally transport Haitians between the city and the island of Île de la Tortue also ceased operation due to the rough seas. Making the day equally difficult for many in the city is a shortage of fuel that paralyzed public transport.
In Puerto Rico, Isaias’ heavy rain flooded streets and homes and caused landslides that blocked mountain roads. Municipalities in the center of the Island like Aguas Buenas and Aibonito saw water levels rise in rivers and cause flash flooding. Close to the coast in Mayagüe, the rain accumulation caused the Yagüez river to flood the town in residential areas, leaving thousands of homes underwater.
The 60-mph winds and higher gusts blew over trees and power lines, causing major blackouts around the island. According to the Electric Energy Authority of Puerto Rico, around 400,000 families were without power Thursday morning, which represents 25 percent of its clients.
“The emotional state of people is deteriorating more every day,” Santos Seda, mayor of the southwest town of Guánica, told The Associated Press.
Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis asked Bahamians to take the approaching storm seriously and again urged them “to prepare for the worse just in case.”
All government offices will close at noon Friday to allow people to prepare for the storm, Minnis announced. He also said this weekend’s COVID-19 lockdown, put in place to try and stem the tide of rising coronavirus cases, will be relaxed to allow people to prepare for the storm. The hours of supermarkets and other stores will be extended and individuals will be allowed to move around.
Effective Friday, a curfew will be in place from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. until further notice.
Based on current indicators and data provided, a lockdown will still be necessary following the passage of this storm, Minnis said. “Much stronger protective and mitigation measures are absolutely necessary and will have to be implemented,” he said.
He also told Bahamians that the country remains in the midst of a pandemic and if they do not act responsibility, the consequences could be dire. He begged them not to use the storm to go “socializing” and meeting with friends and family.
“The situation we are in is very fast-moving and fluid,” he said.
Minnis also appealed to the country’s youth, who have been booking reservations at local hotels to wait out the hurricane. Minnis asked them not to engage in COVID-19 or hurricane parties.
“Use that time for security and safety please. Do not engage in a hurricane or Covid party. It will not help us and it can be devastating. We will see the after effects, if not in two weeks, possibly later,” Minnis said.
While the Bahamas is still recovering from the devastating effects of last year’s Hurricane Dorian, which slammed the islands of Grand Bahama and the Abacos, it is also dealing with a surge in coronaviurs cases after fully reopening its borders on July 1. The surge first led to announcing a travel ban for U.S. travelers. It has since amended it by saying all visitors are welcomed but will need to quarantine — at their own expense — in a government facility for 14 days and take a COVID-19 test before being discharged.
Trevor Basden, the director at the Bahamas Meteorology department, who told Bahamains on Wednesday there was a high probability the storm would not turn into a hurricane, said forecasters revived their forecasts as the storm lashed the coastlines of the Dominican Republic and northern Haiti.
“We were quite confident that interaction with the mountainous terrain of Hispaniola and also the hillness there of Puerto Rico would have weakened it,” Basden said. “But it strengthened from 45, 50 and 60 miles per hour at 11 a.m. this morning and as of 2 p.m. it was still over the Dominican Republic but the Hurricane Center indicated a new circulation was forming just off the northern coast of the Dominican Republic..a new center and that is not usual but it happened.”
Basden said the 5 p.m. advisory had the track now going “technically straight through the entire Bahamas,” with 75 miles per hour winds on Saturday, which automatically means its a hurricane.
Tropical storm warnings are still in effect for the Dominican Republic’s entire southern and northern coastlines. Warnings are also in effect along the north coast of Haiti from Le Môle, St.-Nicholas eastward to the northern border with the Dominican Republic, Turks and Caicos Islands, the southeastern and central Bahamas.
Tropical storm watches are in effect for the Northwestern Bahamas including Andros Island, New Providence, Eleuthera, Abacos Islands, Berry Islands, Grand Bahamas Island and Bimini.
Miami Herald reporters Doug Hanks, Jacqueline Charles and David Goodhue and el Nuevo Herald writer Salomé Ramírez Vargas contributed to this report.