Hurricane heads for Florida after brushing Caribbean islands

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Hurricane Dorian moved out over open waters early yesterday after doing limited damage in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, though forecasters warned it was gaining strength and probably would grow into a dangerous storm while heading toward the northern Bahamas and Florida’s east coast.

The United States (US) National Hurricane Center said Dorian was expected to strengthen into a dangerous Category 3 hurricane as it stayed well to the east of the southeastern and central Bahamas over the next two days. The forecast called for the storm to pass near or over the northern Bahamas tomorrow and close in on Florida by Sunday afternoon.

The storm was a Category 1 hurricane on Wednesday when it swirled through the islands of the northeastern Caribbean, causing power outages and flooding in places but doing no major damage.

“We’re happy because there are no damages to report,” said William Solís, the mayor of the small Puerto Rican island of Culebra. He said only one community lost power.

Dorian caused an islandwide blackout in St Thomas and St John in the US Virgin Islands, and scattered power outages in St Croix, government spokesman Richard Motta said. In addition, the storm downed trees and at least one electric pole in St Thomas, he said, adding that there were no reports of major flooding.

Residents gather at the William Rivera Vocational School converted into a temporary shelter, before the arrival of Tropical Storm Dorian, in Canovanas, Puerto Rico. PHOTO: AP

“We are grateful that it wasn’t a stronger storm,” he said.

There were no reports of serious damage in the British Virgin Islands, where Governor Augustus Jaspert said crew were already clearing roads and inspecting infrastructure by late Wednesday afternoon.

Late Wednesday, Dorian was centred about 145 kilometres north of San Juan. The US National Hurricane Center said its maximum sustained winds had increased to 140 kph as the storm moved northwest at 20 kph.

Dennis Feltgen, a Hurricane Center meteorologist in Miami, said earlier that Dorian would strengthen and could hit anywhere from South Florida to South Carolina.

“This will be a large storm approaching the Southeast,” he said.

People in Florida were starting to get ready for a possible Labor Day weekend strike, with county governments along Florida’s east-central coast distributing sandbags and many residents rushing to warehouse retailers to load up on water, canned food and emergency supplies.

“All Floridians on the East Coast should have seven days of supplies, prepare their homes and follow the track closely,” Governor Ron DeSantis said in a tweet. Later Wednesday, he declared a state of emergency for the counties in the storm’s path.

Puerto Rico seemed to be spared any heavy wind and rain, a huge relief to many on an island where blue tarps still cover some 30,000 homes nearly two years after Hurricane Maria. The island’s 3.2 million inhabitants also depend on an unstable power grid that remains prone to outages since it was destroyed by Maria, a Category 4 storm.

Ramonita Torres, a thin, stooped, 74-year-old woman who lives by herself in the impoverished, flood-prone neighbourhood of Las Monjas in the capital of San Juan, was still trying to rebuild the home she nearly lost after Maria but was not able to secure the pieces of zinc that now serve as her roof.

“There’s no money for that,” she said, shaking her head.