Puerto Rico Battens Down the Hatches as Tropical Storm Dorian Nears

Tropical Storm Dorian approaches Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands.
Gif: CIMMS

On Tuesday morning, Tropical Storm Dorian looked like it would thread the needle between western Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. But as the sun rose on the still-organizing storm on Wednesday, Dorian’s forecast track has shifted. It could now strafe or even hit the heavily populated eastern side of Puerto Rico and parts of the Virgin Islands with gusty winds and up to 10 inches of rain, testing places still reeling from Hurricane Maria two years ago.

As of the National Hurricane Center’s latest update on Wednesday morning, Dorian was packing sustained winds of 70 mph making it a potent tropical storm. A flight by Hurricane Hunter aircraft earlier this morning shows that Dorian may be picking up steam, though. And NHC forecasts it could be near hurricane strength—meaning winds in excess of 74 mph—as it approaches Puerto Rico. The agency issued hurricane warnings for the U.S. and British Virgin Islands and the Puerto Rican islands of Vieques and Culebra, indicating hurricane conditions are likely. The outer bands of rain are already visible on radar, and conditions should deteriorate throughout the day as the storm pushes closer.

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The biggest concern for Puerto Rico is rain and lots of it. Dorian is approaching from the southeast, putting the island on the side of the storm where the weakest winds will be—maybe the only bit of not-bad news. But that doesn’t mean no winds.

“Practically the entire island will be under sustained tropical storm-force winds,” Roberto García, the director of the National Weather Service San Juan office, said, according to the Guardian.

Those winds could knock down trees and power lines of an already decrepit electrical grid. But perhaps the biggest concern will be rain. Puerto Rico’s main island, as well as Vieques, will also receive a heaping dose of rain. NHC is calling for up to 10 inches in some locations, which could, in turn, unleash landslides. The U.S. Virgin Islands could also see similar rainfall totals and landslide risk while also having to contend with Dorian’s fiercest winds.

That forecast has the region on high alert. President Donald Trump approved an emergency declaration on Tuesday. That means the Federal Emergency Management Agency will be able to respond once the storm passes, though Trump couldn’t help himself from tweeting an attack at San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz who had the audacity to call out the federal government’s disastrous response to Hurricane Maria and the resulting deaths of nearly 3,000 people.

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The Puerto Rican government has opened emergency shelters, and as of early Wednesday morning, Governor Wanda Vazquez said the island was 90 percent ready. Schools were also closed on Wednesday across the island.

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“We are better prepared than when Hurricane Maria attacked our island,” she said, according to Reuters.

Dorian won’t be anywhere close to the force that Maria was when it struck the island as a Category 4 storm. But whether Puerto Rico is better prepared remains to be seen. The island still reportedly has tens of thousands of people living in houses with tarps instead of roofs. Vieques was among the areas with the highest percentage of roof damage from Maria. The Virgin Islands’ grid and homes were similarly bombarded by Maria and recovery has been slow there as well.

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In addition to still-damaged homes, Puerto Rico’s grid is also a big concern. Maria basically wiped the whole thing out. While power has been restored, the grid is still a huge concern. A report last summer found that officials were “almost certain to collapse again when the next hurricane hits.” We may, unfortunately, be about to find out if that assessment was right.

Once past Puerto Rico, Dorian might not be done, either. The most recent NHC forecast takes the storm sweeping past the Bahamas and toward Florida. Dorian is expected to keep strengthening over the warm waters and attain full hurricane status by Friday. The forecast indicates it could strengthen into a Category 3, which would make it the first major hurricane of the Atlantic season. It’s way too early to talk about an exact landfall in Florida, but the NHC forecast is already warning the Southeast U.S. could see up to 10 inches of rain somewhere. It will take a few days for the where to become clearer, but it looks like Dorian could ruin Labor Day weekend in the Sunshine State.

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This is a developing story. We will add new information as it becomes available.

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