Florida issues state of emergency as tropical storm Erika batters Caribbean

Tropical storm Erika has caused four deaths and caused widespread flooding across the Caribbean islands this week and is expected to make landfall in Florida by Monday.

Alvin Baez/Reuters
People stand on a pier while looking at sailboats in La Guancha, Puerto Rico, Friday. Tropical storm Erika lashed Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands with heavy rain and fierce winds on Friday, moving across the Caribbean and apparently heading for the Dominican Republic, northern Haiti and eventually South Florida, the US National Hurricane Center said. Due to some likely weakening over the Dominican Republic, Erika was no longer forecast to make US landfall as a hurricane.

The governor of Florida has declared a state of emergency ahead of the anticipated landfall of tropical storm Erika, which has been lashing Caribbean islands with heavy rainfall and causing deadly floods and mudslides on one small eastern Caribbean island.

Four people were killed on the mountainous island of Dominica on Thursday and several still remain missing.

Erika is the fifth named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season but, due to some likely weakening as it passes over land, forecasters don't believe it will hit the US mainland as a hurricane. It could still hit the Miami area with sustained winds of 50 miles per hour on Monday, however, and then sweep northward up the Florida peninsula as far as Orlando.

Erika has left a trail of destruction across the Caribbean, however, with Dominica among the hardest hit. The storm dropped 15 inches of rain on the island as it passed over, with landslides and floods washing away several roads and bridges, hampering efforts of recovery crews to access affected areas.

Assistant Police Superintendent Claude Weekes told the Associated Press on Friday that authorities still haven’t been able to access many areas because of impassable roads and bridges. 

“It really has been devastating,” he said.

Roosevelt Skerrit, prime minister of the island, has been posting photos and videos of the damage to his Facebook page and providing updates on search and rescue efforts. 

Some 20 people are still missing, and there have been four confirmed deaths – including an elderly blind man and two children who died when a mudslide hit their home in the island’s southeast region.

Others across the island narrowly escaped death, including Peter Julian, a security guard, who had met up with friends after leaving work instead of going home.

“I am blessed to be alive,” he told the AP. “When I returned, I saw that my house that I have lived in for over 20 years was gone ... I have lost everything and now have to start all over again.”

The storm is now bearing down on Santo Domingo with sustained winds measured at 50 mph as of Friday morning, according to the Miami-based National Hurricane Center. Heavy rainfall – predicted to reach up to 12 inches in some areas – could cause “life-threatening flash floods and mud slides,” the hurricane center said.

In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency on Friday with the storm expected to make landfall on Monday.

CBS reported that the declaration is customary in advance of major storms. The storm is expected to hit South Florida with sustained winds of 50 mph, according to the CNN storm tracker.

While Erika tore through the Caribbean, New Orleans marked the 10th anniversary of hurricane Katrina this week. For an in-depth look at the city’s decade of recovery, see The Christian Science Monitor's cover story: “Ten years after Katrina, a ‘new’ New Orleans emerges.

This report includes material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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