SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (AP) — A weakening Tropical Storm Erika drenched Haiti and the Dominican Republic on Friday after leaving a trail of destruction that killed at least 20 people and left another 31 missing on the small eastern Caribbean island of Dominica, authorities said.
Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit said in a televised address late Friday that the island has been set back 20 years in the damage inflicted by the storm, which dumped some 15 inches (38 centimeters) of rain 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.”
The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said the system was expected to move north across the island of Hispaniola, where the high mountains would weaken it to a tropical depression on Saturday and possibly cause it to dissipate entirely.
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There’s a chance it could regain some strength off northern Cuba and people in Florida should still keep an eye on it and brace for heavy rain, said John Cagialosi, a hurricane specialist at the center. “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, which could begin seeing the effects of the system late Sunday and early Monday. Officials urged residents to prepare by filling vehicle gas tanks, stockpiling food and water, and determining whether they live in an evacuation zone.
Erika’s heavy rains set off floods and mudslides in Dominica, where at least 31 people have been reported missing, according to officials with the Barbados-based Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency.
The island’s airports remain closed, and authorities have not yet been able to reach some communities cut off by flooding and landslides. Skerrit said he was forming a national reconstruction advisory committee and 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.”
Among the houses lost in the mudslides was that of 46-year-old security guard Peter Julian, who had joined friends after leaving work.
“When I returned, I saw that my house that I have lived in for over 20 years was gone,” he said. “I am blessed to be alive. God was not ready for me … I have lost everything and now have to start all over again.”
Erika is a particularly wet storm, and was expected to dump up to 8 inches (20 centimeters) of rain across the drought-stricken Caribbean.
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 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and was moving west at about 21 mph (33 kph), the Hurricane Center said. The storm’s maximum sustained winds dropped slightly to 45 mph (75 kph).
The storm was driving west-northwestward at 20 mph (31 kph), with the eastern tip of Cuba about 145 miles (235 kilometers) ahead. The Hurricane Center said it was likely to slow before hitting Cuba or the southeastern Bahamas.
Erika drenched the Dominican Republic after it slid south of Puerto Rico, where it knocked out power to more than 200,000 people and caused more than $16 million in damage to crops including plantains, bananas and coffee.
Meanwhile in the Pacific, Jimena turned into a powerful Category 3 hurricane with maximum sustained winds near 125 mph (205 kph), and the Hurricane Center said it was likely to be near Category 5 status soon, though it did not pose an immediate threat to land.
Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico. AP writers Carlisle Jno Baptiste in Roseau, Dominica, and Ben Fox and Tamara Lush in Miami contributed to this report.