Tropical storm Chantal: Caribbean prepares as storm nears (+video)

Tropical storm Chantal makes its way towards the small islands of the Lesser Antilles late Monday afternoon. Forecasters say tropical storm Chantal could be near hurricane strength on Wednesday before it reaches Hispaniola, the island shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

By , Associated Press

St. Lucia shuttered its school system on Monday and other nearby Caribbean countries urged residents to quickly prepare for the approach of Tropical Storm Chantal as it raced toward the small islands of the Lesser Antilles after forming in the Atlantic.

The fast-moving storm's maximum sustained winds were near 45 mph (75 kph) late Monday afternoon with some strengthening expected over the next two days. Chantal was centered about 390 miles (630 kilometers) east-southeast of Barbados and was moving west-northwest near 26 mph (43 kph).

The center of the tropical storm was expected to churn over the Atlantic and reach the small islands on the eastern rim of the Caribbean early Tuesday and then move into the Caribbean Sea. At this point, forecasters with the U.S. National Hurricane Center expect that wind shear and interaction with the mountains of Hispaniola and Cuba will cause Chantal to start weakening in about three days and it is expected to be a tropical depression Friday over the Bahamas.

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But U.S. forecasters say Chantal could be near hurricane strength on Wednesday before it reaches Hispaniola, the island shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Both countries are very vulnerable to flooding and landslides from storms, but widespread deforestation and ramshackle housing in Haiti mean even moderate rains are a significant threat.

In St. Lucia's capital of Castries, supermarkets, gas stations and hardware stores remained open on Monday and there were few signs of islanders stocking up on emergency supplies.

"The economy is not at its best and as a result I don't think people have money to spend on speculative weather," said Josephine Quarless, a young mother.

But the government was taking no chances, ordering a midday closure of all schools until Wednesday. The director of the local meteorological office warned that parts of the island could potentially be impacted by landslides and flooding.

A tropical storm warning was issued for St. Lucia, Barbados, Dominica, Puerto Rico and the French islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe. A tropical storm watch was in effect for the U.S. Virgin Islands and parts of the southern coast of the Dominican Republic.

In Barbados, officials urged people to stay tuned to radio stations and prepare for the rapid approach ofChantal, the Atlantic season's third named storm.

"This is hurricane season so we urge Barbadians to be prepared," said Kerry Hinds, deputy director of the island's emergency management department.

In Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the U.S. Coast Guard urged all waterfront facilities to remove unsecured debris, hazardous material and pollutants from dockside areas. Pleasure craft operations were advised to seek safe harbor and secure their craft.

The storm was expected to produce rain and strong winds in Puerto Rico, with gusts of up to 60 mph in southern and mountainous areas, according to Roberto Garcia, director of the National Weather Service on the island of less than 4 million inhabitants. Chantal was expected to pass more than 100 miles south of Puerto Rico early Wednesday.

Meanwhile in the Pacific, Tropical Storm Erick was passing very close to the southern portion of Mexico's Baja California peninsula, where a tropical storm warning is in effect. However, it is not expected to make landfall.

Erick's maximum sustained winds are near 45 mph (72 kph) with gradual weakening expected to continue over the next two days.

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AP writer David McFadden contributed to this report from Kingston, Jamaica.

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