Tropical storm turns deadly in Dominica, heads to Haiti
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Tropical Storm Erika left at least 20 people dead when it swept over the tiny island nation of Dominica, officials reported Friday, as the system barreled through the Caribbean threatening Haiti.
While crews rushed to search for survivors and clean up scenes of chaos on Caribbean islands, Haitian authorities issued travel restrictions and opened emergency shelters ahead of the storm's arrival.
The US state of Florida declared a state of emergency and Cuba issued an alert as well, as the storm, which is forecast to weaken Saturday, rolled their way.
In an evening press conference, Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit said he had spent the day looking at damage and had seen "monumental destruction" that left at least 20 people dead.
"The visual damage I saw today, I fear, may have set our development process back by 20 years," Skerrit said in an address after surveying the island country, which only has a population of about 72,000.
"Of greatest concern however, is the loss of life. So far we have confirmed that at least 20 citizens have died, and some are missing," he said.
Skerrit reported that massive damage had been inflicted on key infrastructure facilities and roads, and that "hundreds of homes around the country have been destroyed or rendered unsafe to occupy."
Highways had sustained widespread damage and bridges had been washed away, he said.
"I have been assessing the damage all day. The extent of devastation is monumental. It is far worse that expected" he said.
'Gradually moving over Haiti'
Haitian authorities announced Friday afternoon that emergency shelters had been opened across the country, even as Erika was forecast to weaken.
Hygiene kits, mattresses and food have been stocked at some 1,966 temporary shelters, which are able to accommodate more than 47,000 people.
In Haiti, many homes are rickety at best and more than 60,000 people are still living in emergency housing in the Port-au-Prince region -- right in Erika's path -- following the country's devastating 2010 earthquake that killed more than 250,000 people and crippled the nation's infrastructure.
The government had already called for preventative evacuations in vulnerable areas ahead of the storm's arrival
It also closed the country's airspace until early Saturday, banned highway travel between departments and prohibited small boats from sailing.
According to latest forecasts, Haiti was to get its first dose of bad weather Friday evening with torrential rains and strong winds.
"The broad circulation of Erika is gradually moving inland over Haiti," the Miami-based National Hurricane Center said in its latest forecast for 0000 GMT.
It predicted that Erika's center would move over western Haiti early Saturday and be near the southeastern Bahamas or eastern Cuba on Saturday afternoon.
However, it added that "Erika is forecast to weaken to a tropical depression on Saturday."
After that point "there is a good possibility that Erika could even degenerate into a trough of low pressure while it is moving over the high terrain of Hispaniola and eastern Cuba," the center said.
Haiti is located on the western half of the island of Hispaniola, which also includes the Dominican Republic.
Dominican Republic lashed
Hispaniola's eastern half was pummeled by Erika on Friday, as residents were inundated with heavy rains.
Dominican Republic authorities issued a red alert as schools, beaches and ports were closed and civil protection organizations were ordered to be at the ready.
The Dominican Republic is particularly vulnerable to the impact of tropical storms due to rivers and streams in the capital Santo Domingo and elsewhere.
The National Hurricane Center said Erika was expected to produce total rainfall of three to six inches (7.5 to 15.5 centimeters) but could produce up to 10 inches of rain across parts of the Dominican Republic and Haiti through Saturday.
Similar amounts of rain were expected in Turks and Caicos, eastern Cuba and the southeastern and central Bahamas, it said.
Florida declares emergency
In Puerto Rico, Erika left nearly 150,000 people without power, but appeared not to have caused major damage.
The storm's approach also set off a scramble as far north as the US state of Florida, where the governor declared a state of emergency.
"Tropical Storm Erika poses a severe threat to the entire state of Florida and requires that timely precautions are taken to protect the communities, critical infrastructure and general welfare of this state," Governor Rick Scott said.
In Washington, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said President Barack Obama had been briefed about preparations for Erika's possible landfall in the United States.