SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Dorian became a Category 1 hurricane on Wednesday as it struck the U.S. Virgin Islands, with forecasters saying it could grow to Category 3 status as it nears the U.S. mainland as early as the weekend.
The British Virgin Islands and the Puerto Rican islands of Vieques and Culebra were also in Dorian’s path, the first major test of emergency preparedness for the U.S. territory since the 2017 devastation of Hurricane Maria, though the main island appeared to have been spared the brunt of the storm.
“Dorian brings uncertainty, and, for those of us who experienced the storms of 2017, uncomfortable memories,” said British Virgin Islands Gov. Augustus Jaspert. “Take heart.”
Dorian prompted President Donald Trump to declare a state of emergency Tuesday night and order federal assistance for local authorities.
At 5 p.m. EDT, Dorian was located 45 miles (70 kilometers) northwest of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The U.S. National Hurricane Center said it had maximum sustained winds of 80 mph (130 kph) while moving northwest at 14 mph (22 kph).
The Hurricane Center said the storm could grow into a dangerous Category 3 storm as it pushes northwest in the general direction of Florida.
Dennis Feltgen, a Hurricane Center meteorologist in Miami, said Dorian may grow in size and could land anywhere from South Florida to South Carolina on Sunday or Monday.
“This will be a large storm approaching the Southeast,” he said.
People in Florida were starting to get ready for a possible Labor Day weekend strike, with county governments along Florida’s east-central coast distributing sandbags and many residents rushing to warehouse retailers to load up on water, canned food and emergency supplies.
“All Floridians on the East Coast should have 7 days of supplies, prepare their homes & follow the track closely,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said in a tweet. Later Wednesday, he declared a state of emergency for the counties in the storm’s path.
A hurricane watch and tropical storm warning was in effect for Puerto Rico, with Dorian expected to dump 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 centimeters) of rain with isolated amounts of 8 inches (20 centimeters) in the eastern part of the island.
However, Puerto Rico seemed to be spared any heavy wind and rain, a huge relief to many on an island where blue tarps still cover some 30,000 homes nearly two years after Hurricane Maria. The island’s 3.2 million inhabitants also depend on an unstable power grid that remains prone to outages since it was destroyed by Maria, a Category 4 storm.
Ramonita Torres, a thin, stooped, 74-year-old woman who lives by herself in the impoverished, flood-prone neighborhood of Las Monjas in the capital of San Juan, was still trying to rebuild the home she nearly lost after Maria but was not able to secure the pieces of zinc that now serve as her roof.
“There’s no money for that,” she said, shaking her head.
A reported 990 customers were without power across Puerto Rico by late Wednesday afternoon, according to Ángel Figueroa, president of a union that represents power workers.
Police said an 80-year-old man in the northern town of Bayamón died on Wednesday after he fell trying to climb up to his roof to clear it of debris ahead of the storm.
In the U.S. Virgin Islands, which is still struggling to recover from hurricanes Irma and Maria, officials were reporting power outages as driving rains and heavy wind hit.
“Winds have picked up significantly. We’re starting to get some of those heavier gusts,” the governor’s spokesman, Richard Motta, said in a telephone interview.
Dorian earlier had been projected to brush the western part of Puerto Rico and the change in the storm’s course caught many off guard in the tiny island of Vieques just east of Puerto Rico, a popular tourist destination that now lies in Dorian’s path.
“I’m in shock,” Vilma Santana said.
Earlier, Trump sent a tweet assuring islanders that “FEMA and all others are ready, and will do a great job.”
He added a jab at Puerto Rican officials who have accused this administration of a slow and inadequate response to Hurricane Maria: “When they do, let them know it, and give them a big Thank You — Not like last time. That includes from the incompetent Mayor of San Juan!”
The mayor, Carmen Yulín Cruz, tweeted that Trump needs to “calm down get out of the way and make way for those of us who are actually doing the work on the ground,” adding that maybe he “will understand this time around THIS IS NOT ABOUT HIM; THIS IS NOT ABOUT POLITICS; THIS IS ABOUT SAVING LIVES.”
I said yesterday that Trump needs to be quite, “calm down” get out of the way and make way for those of us who are actually doing the work on the ground. Maybe Trump will understand this time around THIS IS NOT ABOUT HIM; THIS IS NOT ABOUT POLITICS; THIS IS ABOUT SAVING LIVES. https://t.co/uy5dZY9uwY
— Carmen Yulín Cruz (@CarmenYulinCruz) August 28, 2019
Dorian earlier caused power outages and downed trees in Barbados and St. Lucia.
Although top government officials in Puerto Rico said they were prepared for the storm and had sufficient equipment, a couple of mayors, including those in the western region, said they did not have enough generators or shelters that were properly set up.
The island’s transportation secretary acknowledged that crews were still rebuilding roads damaged or blocked by Maria, including more than 1,000 that remain blocked by that storm’s landslides.
Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vázquez said public schools and government offices would remain closed through at least Thursday.
“We learned our lesson quite well after Maria,” Vázquez said. “We are going to be much better prepared.”
In the U.S. Virgin Islands, Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. closed schools and government offices and said he would implement a curfew until Thursday, adding that officials have opened shelters and prepared sandbags in all three islands.
“The main threat in this storm is the water,” he said in a conference call early Wednesday. “We still have a lot of vulnerable people in the territory.”