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Isaac lashes Caribbean as it heads toward Florida

Friday, August 24, 2012    

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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands braced for torrential rains today as Tropical Storm Isaac whipped up waves as high as 10 feet (three metres) in the Caribbean and threatened to become a hurricane that could take a shot at Florida.

Some flooding was reported in the eastern and southern regions of Puerto Rico as the storm approached.

US forecasters said Isaac will likely turn into a Category 1 hurricane by today as it nears the Dominican Republic and Haiti. It was expected to weaken a little while heading over those islands and Cuba, then possibly move on toward Florida as a hurricane by Monday.

Isaac was centred 200 miles (320 kilometres south-southeast of Puerto Rico late yesterday morning, with maximum sustained winds of 40 mph (65 kph). It was moving west at 15 mph (24 kph) according to the US National Hurricane Center.

The system has slowed down, and as a result, the island will see more rain, said Ernesto Morales, forecaster with the National Weather Service in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

"This is not the moment to become complacent," he said.

The US territory has opened 428 shelters, and 50 people have taken refuge, said Governor Luis Fortuno. Some 4,000 people were without power and more than 3,000 without water.

Schools and government offices remained closed yesterday, but the governor said it was safe for people to go to work if they needed to. However, he warned everyone to stay away from beaches and swollen rivers.

"It's not the day to participate in recreational activities in these areas," Fortuno said.

While Isaac itself has caused no reported injuries or deaths, police in Puerto Rico say a 75-year-old woman died near the capital of San Juan on Wednesday when she fell off a second-floor balcony while filling a drum with water in preparation for the storm.

Puerto Rico's main international airport remained open, but Cape Air and American Eagle cancelled all their flights yesterday, Fortuno said. Ferry service to the tourist islands of Vieques and Culebra also was temporarily suspended.

In the US Virgin Islands town of Christiansted, streets lined with historic buildings of Danish architecture, were largely deserted. All but a small handful of businesses and government offices were closed. Hurricane shutters covered the entrances to most buildings and sandbags were stacked in anticipation of potential floods and storm surge.

Two shelters were open on the island, and 10 people were housed overnight, according to Elton Lewis, director of the Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency.

In St Croix, the owners of Turtle's, a seaside restaurant, were baking bread for sandwiches, selling coffee and snacks to the few passersby and fielding calls from people about the weather.

"Yes, we're open," Mary Scribner said cheerily. "No, it's not raining!"

The Scribners pulled out sandbags in case the predicted storm surge or flooding impacted their business, but by mid-morning, the sandbags sat in a pile in the corner.

"We didn't see this as a big deal," Bob Scribner said. "Moderate rain and wind."

The storm already forced military authorities at the US base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to cancel pretrial hearings for five prisoners charged in the 9/11 attacks.

Isaac also posed a threat to next week's Republican National Convention in Tampa, where officials said they were ready to take emergency measures even as 70,000 delegates, journalists and protesters descend on the city.

In St Kitts, the government said all businesses and schools were open after Isaac passed through late Wednesday.

In Dominica, the government said no damage or injuries were reported. The airport and seaports have reopened and things are back to normal, said Benoit Bardouille, CEO of the island's Air & Seaport Authority.

However, Disaster Coordinator Don Coriette warned that heavy rains would persist through today.

"Dominica has been spared the full brunt of Tropical Storm Isaac," he said. "We want to thank the almighty God for that."

Meanwhile, another tropical storm, Joyce, formed over the open water of the eastern Atlantic. Forecasters said it does not pose an immediate threat to land. The Hurricane Center in Miami said yesterday the storm has maximum sustained winds of 40 miles per hour (65 kph). Little change in strength was expected in the next 48 hours.

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