Tropical Storm Emily will likely bring heavy rains to Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and Haiti but the storm’s path remains uncertain as it nears Florida.
By Laura Figueroa and Jacqueline Charles
South Florida may be days away from feeling the impact of Tropical Storm Emily, but the storm’s approach triggered emergency preparations in a string of Caribbean islands, including Haiti, still reeling from last year’s earthquake.
With Emily expected to dump anywhere from four to six inches of rain on Puerto Rico and Hispaniola Wednesday night, forecasters with the National Hurricane Center warned of the potential for “life-threatening flash floods and mudslides in areas of mountainous terrain.”
Some areas may receive up to 10 inches of rain, a forecast with extra significance for Haiti, which has seen more people die from tropical storms than not hurricanes in the past 10 hurricane seasons.
“Even though it’s not a hurricane but a tropical storm, we know that it’s the rain and wind that causes the deaths, and most of the deaths happen inland, away from the coast,’’ said Leonard Doyle, spokesman for the International Organization for Migration.
In the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, where thousands of earthquake victims still live in ramshackle tents, aid workers Tuesday were busy showing residents how to properly tie down their makeshift homes, and encouraging them to safeguard important documents.
They also encouraged the homeless tent-dwelling residents to identify family and friends with homes where they could seek shelter if they have to evacuate. The IOM distributed the latest edition of Chimen Lakay, its Creole-language newspaper with the latest edition dedicated to disaster risk reduction.
Haiti’s disaster experts began meeting Tuesday afternoon. Doyle said the IOM was working with Haiti’s Disaster Protection Office, but that only five of 12 hurricane shelters it is building are ready to be used for evacuations. There are 350 evacuation shelters — schools, government buildings, churches — that are also available for up to 50,000 people, not enough in a country where more than 600,000 people remain in makeshift tents and tarps.
South Florida could fare better than the Caribbean if early forecast models hold true. Tuesday evening projections show South Florida experiencing heavy rain and wind from Emily starting Friday night, but place the storm east of Florida’s Atlantic Ocean coastline.
“Overall, it’s not a good weekend to go to the beach,” said Diana Goeller, a hurricane specialist with the center, adding, “That’s not to downplay the role of a tropical storm, which is still a serious force of nature.”
Still, with an ever changing system and because the storm has lacked a clearly defined center, “uncertainty” remained about Emily’s movements near Florida, said David Zelinsky, a meteorologist with the hurricane center.
“It’s still a large enough system that even if the system doesn’t pass over land, there will be a large possibility for rain, gusty winds and high wave conditions,” Zelinsky said.
He added that while projections show the storm will arrive as a “strong tropical storm” off Florida’s east coast, it’s “not out of the question” for the storm to gather strength and intensify into a hurricane.
“There’s still a high degree of uncertainty for the forecast beyond the next three days,” Zelinsky said.
Adding to the uncertainty is the question of how Emily’s movement over the mountainous island of Hispaniola will affect the storm, which has been gradually gaining strength since Monday, with wind speeds clocked at 50 mph late Tuesday.
Forecasters noted that if the storm does not weaken while crossing the island’s rough terrain, conditions would be ripe for “re-intensification once the storm moves over the Southeast or Central Bahamas.”