DOMINICA, Aug 29 – Tropical Storm Erika left at least 20 people dead when it swept over the tiny island nation of Dominica, officials reported, as the system barreled through the Caribbean.
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 on Saturday, rolled towards them.
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 has a population of only 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 sustained widespread damage and bridges were 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.
Haitian authorities announced Friday afternoon that emergency shelters had been opened across the country. Hygiene kits, mattresses and food were stocked at some 2,000 temporary shelters, which are able to accommodate more than 47,000 people.
According to an early tally, three people were injured in the Port-au-Prince region when a house collapsed. Flooding was reported in two regions after heavy rains.
Many homes in Haiti are rickety at best and more than 60,000 people are still living in emergency housing around Port-au-Prince following the country’s devastating 2010 earthquake that killed more than 250,000 people and crippled the nation’s infrastructure.
The government 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.
“Tropical storm conditions will continue to affect Haiti, and spread into the Turks and Caicos Islands and the southeastern Bahamas during the next few hours, and the central Bahamas later today,” the US National Hurricane Center said early Saturday.
It added that Erika could weaken to a tropical depression later in the day.
Haiti is located on the western half of the island of Hispaniola, which also includes the Dominican Republic.
Erika pummeled Hispaniola’s eastern half 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 National Hurricane Center said Erika was expected to produce total rainfall of three to six inches (seven to 15 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.
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 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.