SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (CBSMiami/AP) — Tropical Storm Erika was losing its punch as it drenched Haiti and the Dominican Republic early Saturday, but it left devastation in its path, killing at least 20 people and leaving another 31 missing on the small eastern Caribbean island of Dominica, authorities said.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said that mountains and an unfavorable environment would likely knock Erika below tropical storm force, though there’s a small chance it could recover as it moves along Cuba and then approaches Florida late Sunday.
A World Atlantic Airline pilot raced to beat the storm out of Cuba Saturday.
“We had a 90-degree wind shift. It was noticeable. It was coming,” said Capt. Patrick Hassett. “On the ground, we were watching the clouds and they were coming in quickly, it was coming in fast.”
Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit said in a televised address late Friday that damage inflicted by the storm set the island back 20 years. Some 15 inches of rain fell on the mountainous island.
“The extent of the devastation is monumental. It is far worse than expected,” he said, adding that hundreds of homes, bridges and roads have been destroyed. “We have, in essence, to rebuild Dominica.”
At least 31 people have been reported missing, according to officials with the Barbados-based Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency.
The island’s airports remained closed, and some communities remained isolated by flooding and landslides.
Skerrit asked people to share their resources with each other as foreign aid trickles in.
“This is a period of national tragedy,” he said. “Floods swamped villages, destroyed homes and wiped out roads. Some communities are no longer recognizable.”
Erika still carried enough force to knock out power to more than 200,000 people in Puerto Rico and cause more than $16 million in damage to crops there, including plantains, bananas and coffee.
Dr. Ramon Cabreja returned to Miami Saturday after experiencing the storm in the Dominican Republic.
“I was there for a conference, and it was cancelled due to the storm. There were winds of about 40 miles per hour, some gusts of winds,” said Cabreja. ”
In Haiti, roofs collapsed on dilapidated homes, injuring some people. One person died in a mudslide.
Norluck Dorange flew in from Port-au-Prince on Saturday. He was in the center of the storm as it started to break apart over the mountains.
“I’m living in the mountain. It was really raining, and the wind was blowing very severely,” said Dorange.
While the storm was stumbling over the Dominican Republic and Haiti, John Cagialosi, a hurricane specialist at the center, warned that people in Florida should still brace for heavy rain, said “This is a potentially heavy rain event for a large part of the state,” he said.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for the entire state and officials urged residents to fill gas tanks and stockpile food and water.
Erika is a particularly wet storm, and its moving across a region that has been struggling with drought.
Given how weak the storm now is and how dry Puerto Rico and parts of Florida have been, “it could be a net benefit, this thing,” said MIT meteorology professor Kerry Emanuel.
The center of Erika was located about 75 miles south of Guantanamo, Cuba, and was moving west-northwest at about 20 mph, the Hurricane Center said early Saturday. The storm’s maximum sustained winds dropped slightly to 40 mph.
The Hurricane Center said the center of Erika will move over portions of eastern Cuba on Saturday and move across central Cuba Saturday night.
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