Hurricane Dorian lashed the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico on Wednesday afternoon, with forecasters predicting it could become a Category 3 hurricane by the time it hits Florida over the weekend.
Dorian became a hurricane near the island of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands on Wednesday afternoon, according to the National Hurricane Center. There were multiple observations of hurricane-force winds in St. Thomas, according to the hurricane center. An elevated weather station on Buck Island, just south of St. Thomas, reported sustained wind of 82 mph and a gust of 111 mph, the center said.
The storm was expected to continue to move near or over the U.S. and British Virgin Islands during the next several hours Wednesday and then over the Atlantic Ocean east of the southeastern Bahamas on Thursday and Friday, the hurricane center said at 5 p.m. Wednesday.
The hurricane center said Dorian was gradually moving away from the northeastern Caribbean Sea and was expected “to become a dangerous hurricane in the western Atlantic.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency Wednesday afternoon.
“It’s important for Floridians on the East Coast to monitor this storm closely,” he said in a statement. “Every Florida resident should have seven days of supplies, including food, water and medicine, and should have a plan in case of disaster.”
The hurricane center forecast the storm to continue to strengthen, becoming a dangerous Category 3 hurricane within 72 hours and staying at that intensity until landfall.
“All indications are that by this Labor Day weekend,a powerful hurricane will be near or over the Florida peninsula,” the center said.
The southeastern United States was expected to get 4 to 8 inches of rain, with some isolated areas seeing 10 inches.
Earlier, the governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Albert Bryan Jr., established a territory-wide curfew in effect until 6 a.m. Thursday, according to a statement from the Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency.
As of Wednesday afternoon, hurricane warnings were in effect for the U.S. Virgin Islands, the British Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico’s island municipalities of Vieques and Culebra. A hurricane watch and a tropical storm warning were in effect for Puerto Rico.
The weather center reported hurricane over parts of the U.S. Virgin Islands and said they were expected over Vieques, Culebra and the British Virgin Islands on Wednesday. Tropical storm conditions were forecast for Puerto Rico’s mainland Wednesday afternoon and night.
Rainfall could cause “life-threatening flash floods,” according to the hurricane center, which said the storm’s maximum sustained winds had increased to near 80 mph with higher gusts.
The center didn’t release information about potential landfall in the Virgin Islands, and because it appeared that it wouldn’t make landfall on the main island of Puerto Rico, the next landfall might not be until it reaches the Bahamas or the southeast coast of the United States.
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The storm was tracking more northerly than most forecasts had predicted, and it could pass Puerto Rico to its east, drastically increasing the odds of landfall in the southeastern United States, wrote Brian McNoldy, a senior research associate at University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.
But the storm could still test Puerto Rico’s electrical grid two years after Hurricane Maria wiped out power on the entire island and thousands of people died in the aftermath. In some areas, power wasn’t fully restored until a year later.
The island was already seeing heavy rain Wednesday as conditions worsened. The worst was expected from Wednesday afternoon to early Thursday before the storm pulls away.
Gov. Wanda Wanda Vázquez said during a news conference Wednesday that the eye of the storm system would pass over the island of Culebra.
“This means everyone should be in their homes, in the shelters,” she said.
“This is not Maria,” Vázquez said, adding: “What we need to do is protect ourselves from the rain.”
Late Tuesday, President Donald Trump approved a state of emergency declaration for Puerto Rico, allowing federal authorities to coordinate aid efforts.
But on Wednesday morning, the president had this message for the U.S. territory: “Puerto Rico is one of the most corrupt places on earth. Their political system is broken and their politicians are either Incompetent or Corrupt,” he tweeted. “Congress approved Billions of Dollars last time, more than anyplace else has ever gotten, and it is sent to Crooked Pols. No good!”
Trump has repeated a false claim that Congress sent $92 billion of aid to Puerto Rico. Congress has allocated $42.5 billion to disaster relief for Puerto Rico, according to federal data, but the island had received less than $14 billion through May.
Trump then said he was “the best thing that’s ever happened to Puerto Rico!“
Earlier Wednesday, Trump said authorities they were tracking Dorian “as it heads, as usual, to Puerto Rico.”
Trump then defended the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, which was widely criticized after Hurricane Maria in September 2017, and targeted a regular critic of his, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz.
“FEMA and all others are ready, and will do a great job. When they do, let them know it, and give them a big Thank You — Not like last time,” Trump tweeted. “That includes from the incompetent Mayor of San Juan!”
In San Juan, volunteers went door to door to make sure residents were prepared. Many homes on the island are still covered by blue tarps from Hurricane Maria.
Jorge Ortiz, 50, a construction worker who had the second floor of his house ripped off in that storm and just finished rebuilding three months ago, without local or federal assistance, told The Associated Press that he was worried that he would “lose it again.”
Cruz said the island was prepared, but he added: “We’re scared. We know what may be coming.”