Weakened storm Isaias hits Florida amid coronavirus surge

The storm has been downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm as it brings heavy rains to the state.

Officials closed beaches, parks and coronavirus testing sites in preparation for Isaias [Wilfredo Lee/The Associated Press]

Bands of heavy rain from Isaias, which has been downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm, have lashed Florida’s east coast, disquieting officials already grappling with surging cases of the coronavirus in the US state.

The storm, which was downgraded on Saturday afternoon, still threatened to bring heavy rain and flooding as it crawled just off Florida’s Atlantic coast.

“Don’t be fooled by the downgrade,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis warned at a news conference after the storm spent hours roughing up the Bahamas.

Upper-level winds took much of the strength out of Isaias, Stacy Stewart, a senior hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami said. The storm also slowed down considerably.

“We were expecting a hurricane to develop and it didn’t,” Stewart told the Associated Press news agency on Monday. “It’s a tale of two storms. If you live on the west side of the storm, you didn’t get much. If you live east of the storm, there’s a lot of nasty weather there.”

Florida is on the west side of Isaias.

Isaias’s maximum sustained winds declined steadily throughout Saturday, and were at 100km/h (65m/h) on Sunday afternoon, the US National Hurricane Center said.

The storm’s centre was located about 75km (45 miles)) east-southeast of Vero Beach in Florida and was forecast to travel near the state’s eastern coast throughout the day. Fluctuations in strength are possible into Tuesday, forecasters said. 

Heavy rain, flooding and high winds could batter much of the East Coast this week as the system is forecast to track up or just off the Atlantic seaboard. 

Isaias had caused destruction 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. 

Isaias then snapped trees and knocked out power as it blew through the Bahamas on Saturday.

Coronavirus epicentre

Authorities in Florida had closed beaches, parks and coronavirus testing sites in preparation for the storm.

DeSantis said the state was anticipating power outages and asked residents to have a week’s supply of water, food and medicine on hand.

In preparing for the storm, officials had wrestled with how to have shelters where people can seek refuge  while also safely physical distancing to prevent the spread of coronavirus. 

To date, the state has recorded more than 487,000 confirmed cases and some 7,000 deaths. 

In Palm Beach County, about 150 people were in shelters, according to emergency management spokeswoman Lisa De La Rionda. The county has a voluntary evacuation order for those living in mobile or manufactured homes, or those who feel their home cannot withstand winds.

“We don’t anticipate many more evacuations,” De La Riona said, adding that the evacuees are physically distant from each other and are wearing masks, due to the virus.

In Indian River County, north of West Palm Beach, Florida, emergency shelters were clearing out on Sunday after Isaias was downgraded.

Officials said 38 people registered at three schools used as shelters. Those areas now must be cleaned to ensure no traces of the coronavirus remain as teachers and staff report on Monday to prepare for the upcoming school year.

No one was recorded to have checked in with COVID-19 symptoms. Temperature checks were done at the door, officials said, and isolation rooms were designated in case anyone came in with symptoms.

The storm also did not affect  the successful return of two astronauts aboard the SpaceX Dragon capsule, which splashed down into calm waters in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pensacola.

Test pilots Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken rode the capsule back to Earth less than a day after departing the International Space Station and two months after blasting off from Florida.

Source: News Agencies