ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Early bands of heavy rain from Isaias lashed Florida’s east coast before dawn Sunday as authorities warily eyed the approaching storm, which threatened to snarl efforts to quell surging cases of the coronavirus across the region.
Isaias weakened from a hurricane to a tropical storm late Saturday afternoon, but was expected to regain hurricane strength overnight as it barreled toward Florida.
‘œDon’t be fooled by the downgrade,’� Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis warned during a news conference on Saturday after the storm – pronounced ees-ah-EE-ahs – spent hours roughing up the Bahamas.
Florida authorities closed beaches, parks and virus testing sites, lashing signs to palm trees so they wouldn’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.
In Palm Beach County, about 150 people were in shelters, said emergency management spokeswoman Lisa De La Rionda. The county has a voluntary evacuation order for those living in mobile or manufactured homes, or those who feel their home can’t withstand winds.
‘œWe don’t anticipate many more evacuations,’� she said, adding that the evacuees are physically distant from each other and are wearing masks, due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Isaias is piling another burden on communities already hard-hit by other storms and sickness.
The storm’s maximum sustained winds declined steadily throughout Saturday, and were near 70 mph (110 kph) 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 was forecast to regain strength and approach the southeast coast of Florida early Sunday morning, then travel up the state’s east coast throughout the day. It is expected to remain a hurricane through Monday then slowly weaken as it tracks up or just off the Atlantic seaboard. 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 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.
Isaias snapped trees and knocked out power as it blew through the Bahamas on Saturday and churned toward the Florida coast.
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 (240 kilometers) north. A storm surge watch is in effect for Jupiter Inlet to Ponte Vedra Beach.
Coronavirus cases have surged in Florida in recent weeks, and the added menace of a storm ratcheted up the anxiety. State-run virus testing sites are closing in areas where the storm might hit because the sites are outdoor tents, which could topple in high winds.
Natalie Betancur, stocking up at a grocery in Palm Beach Gardens, said that the storm itself doesn’t cause her a great amount of concern.
‘œThe hurricane is not that serious, but I feel that the public is really panicking because it’s a hurricane and we’re in the middle of a pandemic,” she said.
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.
Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico. Curt Anderson from St. Petersburg, and Cody Jackson in Palm Beach County, Florida, contributed.