SAN JUAN – Isaias snapped trees and knocked out power as it blew through the Bahamas on Saturday and churned toward the Florida coast, threatening to complicate efforts to contain the coronavirus in places were cases are surging.
Isaias weakened from a hurricane to a tropical storm Saturday afternoon, but was expected to regain hurricane strength overnight as it barrels toward Florida.
“We’ll start seeing impacts tonight," Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis warned at a news conference. "Don’t be fooled by the downgrade.”
Isaias is piling another burden on communities already hard-hit by previous storms and the pandemic.
Florida authorities closed beaches, parks and virus testing sites, lashing signs to palm trees so they wouldn't blow away. The governor warned residents to expect power outages and asked to have a week's supply of water and food on hand. Officials wrestled with how to prepare shelters for people to seek refuge, if need be, while safely social distancing because of the virus.
Authorities in North Carolina ordered the evacuation of Ocracoke Island, which was slammed last year by Hurricane Dorian. 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.
Isaias' maximum sustained winds dipped steadily Saturday and were near 70 mph (110 kph) around 11 p.m., hours after the U.S. National Hurricane Center downgraded its status. It said Isaias would regain hurricane strengthen by early Sunday.
By Saturday night, the storm was about 80 miles (130 kilometers) east-southeast of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It was moving northwest at 9 mph (15 kph) and expected to be near Florida's southeast coast early Sunday, then tack near or along the state's Atlantic coast during the day.
Isaias is expected to remain a hurricane through Monday, then slow weaken on its climb up the Atlantic seaboard. It's expected to move offshore of the coast of Georgia en route toward the mid-Atlantic states. Heavy rain, flooding and high winds could batter much of the East Coast during the 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 — pronounced ees-ah-EE-ahs — 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.
Concerns about the coronavirus and the vulnerability of people who are still recovering from Dorian were adding to storm worries.
Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Minnis relaxed a coronavirus lockdown because of the storm, but imposed a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew. He said supermarkets, pharmacies, gas stations and hardware stores would be open as long as weather permitted.
The Bahamas has reported more than 570 confirmed COVID-19 cases and at least 14 deaths. It recently barred travelers from the U.S. following a surge in cases after it reopened to international tourism.
As the storm moves now toward 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 great concern. But, she added, “I feel that the public is really panicking because it’s a hurricane and we’re in the middle of a pandemic."
DeSantis, the governor, said Saturday that 16 counties have declared states of emergency, although no immediate evacuation orders were given. The Republican also said hospitals are not being evacuated of coronavirus or other patients.
Still, the pandemic forced officials handling disaster response to wrestle with social-distancing rules. At one of four shelters in Palm Beach County on Saturday afternoon, people had their temperatures checked before entering. Public buses transporting residents to the shelter were sanitized by work crews between stops.
Kevin Shelton, the owner of Causeway Mowers in Indian Harbour Beach, Florida, said his store has been packed for two days with folks streaming in to buy generators, chain saws and other provisions. On Saturday morning, Shelton and his wife served at least 25 customers an hour, double their normal weekend business.
“We’ve been in the area almost 50 years. We keep an eye on every storm," he said. "It could shift in this direction at any moment.”
Anderson reported from St. Petersburg, Florida. Associated Press writers Tamara Lush in Indian Harbour Beach, Florida, and Cody Jackson in Palm Beach County, Florida, contributed.
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Hallandale Beach. It also corrects when an evacuation began on North Carolina’s Ocracoke Island. Visitors were told to leave Friday and residents and property owners starting Saturday morning.