SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Heavy rains pummeled the eastern Caribbean on Wednesday due to a weather system headed to Puerto Rico and other islands that was expected to develop into a tropical storm and unleash flooding and landslides.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said the storm was expected to move over or near Puerto Rico on Wednesday night, then brush the northern shores of Hispaniola the following day while on a path that could take it to the U.S. mainland by the weekend.
The center said the storm is expected to strengthen before it makes landfall in the Dominican Republic on Thursday, although it cautioned it's still unclear what it would do in upcoming days: "Simply put, there are a lot of hurdles in the system's way, so it is best to stay on the conservative side at the moment and continue to stress the large uncertainty after it leaves the Caribbean," the advisory said.
Forecasters issued tropical storm warnings for Puerto Rico, the British and U.S. Virgin Islands, Antigua, Barbuda, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, Guadeloupe, Martinique, St. Martin, St. Maarten, Saba, St. Eustatius and portions of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. A tropical storm warning means that tropical storm conditions are expected within within 36 hours.
The forecast warned the islands could experience 3 to 6 inches (8 to 15 cm) of rainfall, with up to 10 inches (25 cm) in isolated spots.
Officials in Puerto Rico expressed concern about the potential for landslides and flooding and noted the U.S. territory is struggling with a spike in coronavirus cases while also still recovering from 2017's devastating Hurricane Maria and a string of earthquakes earlier this year that damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes in the island's south.
At a news conference, Gov. Wanda Vázquez predicted the storm would cause power outages. Puerto Rico's power grid was destroyed by Maria and the rebuilt system is fragile and susceptible to failures. On Tuesday, the island's power company and union leaders said electricity failed for more than 450,000 customers when a plant was knocked offline for unknown reasons.
On Wednesday, the director of Puerto Rico's Electric Power Authority told WKAQ radio that he believed it was either sabotage or negligence: "It was done manually." However, the head of transmission and distribution disputed those comments and told Radio Isla that it was too soon to make any conclusions.
Meanwhile, the governor said that more than 300 shelters across the island were prepared to receive people if needed and that more than 130,000 face masks were available.
"We've lived through several emergencies at one time," Vázquez said. "I want you to remain calm."
On Wednesday morning, the storm system had maximum sustained winds of 45 mph (75 kph). It was centered 350 miles (560 kilometers) southeast of San Juan, Puerto Rico and moving west-northwest at 23 mph (37 kph).