Isaias was forecast to be near hurricane strength as it approached the Carolinas on Monday, just a day after bands of heavy rain from the tropical storm lashed Florida’s east coast.
Officials dealing with surging cases of the coronavirus in Florida kept a close watch on the storm that weakened from a hurricane to a tropical storm on Saturday afternoon, but still brought heavy rain and flooding.
Parts of the Carolinas were due for up to 6in (15cm) of rain, storm surge and possible tornadoes on Monday.
Isaias was just shy of a Category 1 hurricane with maximum sustained winds at 70mph (110kph), according to the US National Hurricane Centre’s 2am advisory. A Category 1 hurricane has winds of 74-95mph (119-153kph).
The tropical storm was centred 330 miles (530km) south of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and 65 miles (105km) north-east of Cape Canaveral, Florida, forecasters said.
“Don’t be fooled by the downgrade,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis warned at a news conference after the storm spent hours ravaging the Bahamas.
Upper-level winds took much of the strength out of Isaias, said Stacy Stewart, senior hurricane specialist at the hurricane centre in Miami.
“We were expecting a hurricane to develop and it didn’t. It’s a tale of two storms. If you live on the west side of the storm, you didn’t get much. If you live east of the storm, there’s a lot of nasty weather there.”
Authorities closed beaches, parks and virus testing sites, lashing signs to palm trees so they would not blow away.
Governor DeSantis said the state is anticipating power outages and asked residents to have a week’s supply of water, food and medicine on hand.
Officials wrestled with how to prepare shelters where people can seek refuge from the storm if necessary, while also safely social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus.
In Palm Beach County, about 150 people were in shelters, said emergency management spokeswoman Lisa De La Rionda. The county has a voluntary evacuation order for those living in mobile or manufactured homes, or those who feel their home can’t withstand winds.
“We don’t anticipate many more evacuations,” she said, adding that the evacuees are physically distant from each other and are wearing masks, due to the virus.
In Indian River County, north of West Palm Beach, Florida, emergency shelters were clearing out on Sunday after Isaias was downgraded to a tropical storm.
Officials told TCPalm newspapers that 38 people registered at three schools used as shelters. Those areas now must be cleaned to ensure no traces of the coronavirus remain as teachers and staff arrive on Monday to prepare for the forthcoming school year.
No-one checked in with Covid-19 symptoms. Temperature checks were done at the door, officials said, and isolation rooms were designated in case anyone came in with symptoms.
“The centre of Isaias will pass just to the east of the Florida east coast through this morning,” the hurricane centre said in its advisory early on Monday.
“The centre of Isaias will then move offshore of the coast of Georgia and southern South Carolina later today, move inland over eastern South Carolina or southern North Carolina tonight and move along the coast of the mid-Atlantic states on Tuesday.”
The storm was moving north-north-west at 9mph (15kph), forecasters said.
A tropical storm warning was in effect from the Volusia/Brevard County Line in Florida to Fenwick Island, Delaware, and included Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds in North Carolina, as well as Chesapeake Bay southward from Smith Point.
The storm did not affect the successful return of two astronauts on board the SpaceX Dragon capsule, which splashed down into calm waters in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pensacola.
Test pilots Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken rode the capsule back to Earth less than a day after leaving the International Space Station and two months after blasting off from Florida.
Isaias already has caused destruction in the Caribbean.
On Thursday, before it became a hurricane, it uprooted trees, destroyed crops and homes and caused widespread flooding and small landslides in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.
One man died in the Dominican Republic. In Puerto Rico, the National Guard rescued at least 35 people from floods that swept away one woman, whose body was recovered on Saturday.
Isaias snapped trees and knocked out power as it blew through the Bahamas on Saturday.
With coronavirus cases surging in Florida recently, the added menace of a storm ratcheted up the anxiety. State-run virus testing sites closed in areas where the storm might hit because the sites are outdoor tents, which could topple in high winds.
Natalie Betancur, stocking up at a grocery in Palm Beach Gardens, said the storm itself does not cause her a great amount of concern.
“The hurricane is not that serious, but I feel that the public is really panicking because it’s a hurricane and we’re in the middle of a pandemic,” she said.
Officials in the Bahamas opened shelters for people in Abaco island to help those who have been living in temporary structures since Dorian devastated the area, killing at least 70 people in September 2019.