Tropical Storm Erika to lose steam, but death toll rising

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (AP) – Tropical Storm Erika began to lose steam Friday as it skirted along the southern coast of the Dominican Republic, but it left behind a trail of destruction that included at least a dozen people killed on the small eastern Caribbean island of Dominica, authorities said.

Heavy winds from the storm toppled trees and power lines in the Dominican Republic. The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said the system was expected to move north across the island of Hispaniola where, the high mountains would weaken it to a tropical depression on Saturday and possibly cause it to dissipate entirely.

There’s a chance it could regain some strength off northern Cuba and people in Florida should still keep an eye on it and brace for heavy rain, said John Cagialosi, a hurricane specialist at the center. “This is a potentially heavy rain event for a large part of the state,” he said.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for the entire state, which could begin seeing the effects of the system late Sunday and early Monday and officials urged residents to prepare by filling vehicle gas tanks, stockpiling food and water, and determining whether they live in an evacuation zone.

Erika brought heavy rain as it passed through the Caribbean, setting off floods and mudslides in Dominica that are now blamed for at least a dozen deaths, the government said. At least two dozen people remained missing and authorities warned the death toll could rise.

“There are additional bodies recovered but it is an ongoing operation,” Police Chief Daniel Carbon said, declining to provide specifics. “It will take us a couple of days to recover as many bodies as we can. So the count will increase.”

Erika is a particularly wet storm, and was expected to dump up to 8 inches (20 centimeters) of rain across the drought-stricken region.

Given how weak the storm is and how dry Puerto Rico and parts of Florida have been, “it could be a net benefit, this thing,” said MIT meteorology professor Kerry Emanuel.

The center of Erika was located about 95 miles (155 kilometers) west-southwest of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and was moving west at about 21 mph (33 kph), the Hurricane Center said. The storm’s maximum sustained winds were near 50 mph (85 kph).

Erika drenched the popular tourist areas of Punta Cana, Samana and Puerto Plata, as well as the capital of Santo Domingo.

The storm previously slid to the south of Puerto Rico, knocking out power to more than 200,000 people and causing more than $5 million in damage to agriculture but causing no major damage or injuries.

Dominica, meanwhile, was struggling in the aftermath. Assistant Police Superintendent Claude Weekes said authorities still haven’t been able to access many areas in the mountainous island because of impassable roads and bridges. “The aftermath is loads of damage,” he said. “It really has been devastating.”

Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit urged people throughout the country to help clear streets strewn with mud and toppled trees. Skerrit said they were airlifting injured people to the hospital in Roseau.

An elderly blind man and two children were killed when a mudslide engulfed their home in the southeast of Dominica. Another man was found dead in the capital following a mudslide at his home.

People on the island told of narrowly escaping being engulfed by water as Erika downed trees and power lines while unleashing heavy floods that swept cars down streets and ripped scaffolding off some buildings.

“I was preparing to go to work when all of a sudden I heard this loud noise and saw the place flooded with water,” said Shanie James, a 30-year-old mother who works at a bakery. “We had to run for survival.”

Mudslides destroyed dozens of homes across Dominica, including that of 46-year-old security guard Peter Julian, who had joined friends after leaving work.

“When I returned, I saw that my house that I have lived in for over 20 years was gone,” he said. “I am blessed to be alive. God was not ready for me … I have lost everything and now have to start all over again.”

Meanwhile in the Pacific, Ignacio strengthened into a hurricane. The storm’s maximum sustained winds increased Thursday morning to 90 mph (150 kph).

Hurricane Ignacio was centered about 840 miles (1,350 kilometers) east-southeast of Hilo, Hawaii, and was moving west-northwest near 10 mph (17 kph).

Also in the Pacific, Jimena strengthened to a hurricane Friday morning with maximum sustained winds near 90 mph (150 kph). Jimena was centered about 1,075 miles (1,730 kilometers) southwest of the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja California peninsula.

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