Tropical Storm Erika Moves Through Caribbean Leeward Islands

  • Storm heading toward Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic
  • Forecasters say Erika may become threat to U.S. next week

Tropical Storm Erika weakened as it churned through the Leeward Islands on a path for the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, and its poor structure is making it hard to forecast where it will go after that, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

Erika’s top winds dropped to 45 miles (72 kilometers) per hour, down from 50 mph earlier. Its center was about 160 miles west of Guadeloupe and it was moving toward that island at about 16 mph, the center said in a 2 p.m. New York time advisory. There is now a chance that Erika will move closer or pass over Hispaniola, home to both Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

“This has implications for Hispaniola, of course, but also for the track and intensity of Erika after that,” Richard Pasch, a senior hurricane specialist at the Miami-based center, said in a forecast analysis earlier. “In short, potential impacts for the Bahamas and beyond are unusually uncertain.”

Erika, the fifth storm of the six-month Atlantic season, is being blamed for four deaths on the Caribbean island of Dominica, the Associated Press reported. The island has been hit by flooding from the storm, Jeff Masters, co-founder of Weather Underground, wrote on his blog.

Strengthening Track

Erika’s five-day track is being watched closely because if the storm survives wind shear tearing at its structure, it will emerge in a part of the Atlantic around the Bahamas where conditions could help it strengthen. This would place it close to Florida’s east coast as a hurricane by Monday.

Florida’s Division of Emergency Management said it’s preparing for a brush with Erika and told residents to review their own plans on what to do if a storm strikes. The state was last hit by a hurricane in 2005.

There is also a chance that Erika won’t survive the trip at all, said Dan Kottlowski, a meteorologist at AccuWeather Inc. in State College, Pennsylvania.

The high mountains of Hispaniola are known to rip storms apart and a weak system like Erika could simply disintegrate, he said.

“Very few storms of this caliber survive interaction with Hispaniola like this,” Kottlowski said by telephone. “This is a very complex situation.”

East Coast

The current hurricane center track forecast calls for the storm to veer away and head up the U.S. East Coast early next week. However, the center says these forecasts can often be off by 240 miles five days out.

If Erika survives its trek across the Caribbean, no one should take it lightly, Joe Bastardi of WeatherBell Analytics LLC said in a note to clients today. There have been numerous examples in the past of a ragged storm breaking through wind shear and menacing the East Coast in El Nino years.

During El Ninos, a warming in the equatorial Pacific, wind shear rises in the parts of the Atlantic that can keep storms from forming or tear them apart. Bastardi said conditions close to the U.S. can often become favorable, allowing strong storms to form there.

“There are examples of El Nino season storms busting troughs, and when they do, look out,” Bastardi said.

The current hurricane center forecast calls for Erika’s top winds to reach 85 mph Tuesday, which would make it a Category 1 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale.

More immediately, tropical storm warnings and watches cover many islands in the eastern Caribbean, including Puerto Rico, Antigua and Barbuda, as well as Saba and St. Eustatius. Erika may bring 4 to 8 inches (10 to 20 centimeters) of rain across the area, with some isolated locations getting up to 12 inches.

Flooding Rains

Puerto Rico is in the grips of drought, with about 87 percent of the island abnormally dry or worse, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor in Lincoln, Nebraska. A flash flood watch has been posted for both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“Localized flash flooding and land slides are possible in areas of high intensity tropical downpours,” the National Weather Service said.

In the Pacific, Hurricane Ignacio may become a Category 3 storm by Friday, the hurricane center said. It is forecast to pass north of the Hawaiian islands Tuesday and is currently located about 1,135 miles east-southeast of Hilo, Hawaii.

Farther to its east, Tropical Storm Jimena, far from any landmass, is forecast to grow into a major hurricane by Sunday.

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