Tropical Storm Isaias is pounding Puerto Rico with heavy rain and strong winds as it continues on an as-yet uncertain path toward Florida, even with the forecast path continuing to shift east.
The ninth named storm of the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season formed late Wednesday night.
Tropical storm warnings have expired for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, but warnings remain in effect for the Dominican Republic, Haiti and portions of the Bahamas as Isaias has become better organized, according to the National Hurricane Center. Some models suggest it’s showing signs that it could approach hurricane strength as it approaches the U.S.
As of Thursday at 2 p.m., Isaias was located about 95 miles west-northwest of Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic and moving northwest at 20 mph, according to the hurricane center. Maximum sustained winds are 60 mph with higher gusts.
Isaias is forecast to move more slowly once landfall in the Dominican Republic later Thursday, and could weaken temporarily as it encounters the mountainous lands of Hispaniola.
It could bring around 4-8 inches of rain to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, with isolated totals of 10 inches that could cause life-threatening floods and mudslides, forecasters said.
But forecasters say it could re-intensify on Friday as it approaches the Bahamas, and this weekend on a path toward Florida and the southeastern U.S.
How it will impact Florida, however, still remains to be seen.
Forecast tracks from the National Hurricane Center have continued to shift the track slightly to the east since Wednesday. The 11 a.m. track continues to take the center of the storm even further east -- even out of much of the greater Tampa Bay region -- clipping southeast Florida while skirting the Carolinas and moving north – but with nearly all areas east of the Panhandle still within the cone of uncertainty.
The official Hurricane Center forecast has the system as a strong tropical storm as it passes at its closest point to the state. Forecasters and Emergency Management officials are strongly encouraging preparation because of the potential changes in both the forecast track and strength of the storm.
“Overall, most track models have shifted east and are now favoring Isaias either over the peninsula or even just offshore in the Atlantic this weekend," said Ray Hawthorne, meteorologist with the Florida Public Radio Emergency Network. “More adjustments are likely, but for now, increasing seas and squally weather are becoming more likely especially over the Peninsula some time Saturday.”
Forecasters with the National Weather Service suggest the prognosis will become more clear once the storm passes Hispaniola. The greater Tampa Bay region could experience dry conditions this weekend if the easterly track over the island continues, but tropical storm conditions if the center shifts west.
Reliable forecast models show two broadly different scenarios that may occur. If the storm remains strong and largely survives the path over Hispaniola, the storm is likely to strengthen and become a strong tropical storm, staying near or just offshore the Florida east coast this weekend. This would result in an increase in seas and rip currents, but the worst of the storm would stay offshore.
This path would also increase the threat of more significant impact on Monday in the Carolinas. The Hurricane Center said in their early Thursday morning discussion that there are models that forecast Isaias to reach hurricane intensity, but that there is large uncertainty in the future strength of the storm.
If the storm is generally weaker, steering currents would likely direct Isaias toward the Florida Peninsula with heavy rain, gusty winds, and choppy seas beginning Saturday over South Florida and then spreading northward through the Peninsula on Sunday.
A weaker storm would also have potentially fewer impacts in the Carolinas, but some increase in seas and rip currents would remain a distinct possibility with a weaker system.
Information from the Florida Public Radio Emergency Network was used in this report.