Emergency management officials from Antigua to Puerto Rico to the Bahamas spent Tuesday watching — and preparing — for the potential arrival of Tropical Storm Isaias, a fast-moving storm churning its way west across the Atlantic.

But with the region already frayed by the months-long COVID-19 pandemic, officials also found themselves in uncharted waters. At issue is how to respond to any potential threat posed by a hurricane or tropical storm while limiting exposure to the deadly virus that has already infected more than 100,000 people in the Caribbean basin and left more than 1,200 dead. 

“It’s a very complicated scenario. We have a lot of variables to take into account that have been added to our regular workload,” said Jerry Chandler, the head of Haiti’s Civil Protection office. “We’re taking necessary measures but we are also having to play it by ear, depending on what pans out, and see how we address and adapt.”

The ninth tropical cyclone, in what’s expected to be a very active storm season, is expected to strengthen into Tropical Storm Isaias overnight. It could drop three to six inches of rain on the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic while it lashes the islands with 60 mph winds.

Flooding and rain is also expected in the Bahamas, where on Tuesday officials were not only keeping a close eye on the storm’s movement but the island nation’s spiking COVID-19 cases after registering 65 new infections, their largest single-day accumulation so far.

“We are definitely going to feel the impact of it and we’re looking at some rainfall,” said Wayne Neely, a hurricane expert in the Bahamas where disaster officials earlier in the day sent out an updated list of storm shelters.

Neely said it was possible for Bahamians, still recovering from last year’s Hurricane Dorian, to see a category 1 or 2 hurricane with the current system, although “right now the storm is entering some hostile environment.”

But with the country dealing with 447 COVID-19 cases and still recovering from Dorian’s devastation, Neely said, regardless of the intensity, “any damage that occurs would be significant for the Bahamas because right now the economy is in tatters. We’re going to get flooding in low-lying areas, we’re going to get possible wind damage and water damage as well.” 

Forecasters have stressed that the potential storm’s path and intensity are unpredictable this far out. Everything from Saharan dust clouds to the mountains of the Antilles could affect the outcome.

Still, it didn’t make Caribbean emergency officials any less worried. 

Recent rainfall in Haiti had saturated the ground, Chandler said, and that means even a brush with the country’s northern region, could lead to devastating mudslides and flooding. 

Still late Tuesday, the country’s meteorologists had not yet issued any weather advisories although their weather counterparts in the neighboring Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola, had issued a tropical storm watch earlier in the day.

“To be honest, it’s not the storm itself that’s concerning me. It’s the repetition of storms, tropical waves that are accumulating more and more, which puts us in a situation where it rains every day and the saturation is more and more,” Chandler said. “We don’t have much we can do besides brace and prepare for what’s coming and making sure our teams are ready and can assist the population and do what needs to be done.”

That meant deploying trucks to the north, northeast and northwest to preposition hurricane supplies that included potable water, pedal-operated hand-washing stations and tens of thousands of face masks.

In Puerto Rico, where officials were wrestling with a power blackout that left around 500,000 people without electricity, preparations were also taking place. continue reading

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