Storm Plows Toward Florida After Soaking Bahamas

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ImagePalm Beach on Saturday afternoon.
Credit…Saul Martinez for The New York Times

Bracing for drenching rain and heavy winds, Floridians are hunkering down on Sunday as Tropical Storm Isaias whips the state’s east coast, driving storm surges of two to four feet and the threat of flash flooding as it goes.

At 8 a.m. Eastern time, the center of the storm was about 40 miles offshore, east of West Palm Beach, Fla., and was moving northwest at about eight miles an hour, according to the National Hurricane Center. Its powerful right-hand side was continuing to lash the northwestern Bahamas.

Isaias clobbered the Bahamas with hurricane conditions on Saturday after hitting parts of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. It was downgraded to a tropical storm Saturday evening when its sustained winds slipped below 74 m.p.h.; they were about 65 m.p.h. at 8 a.m. Sunday. Forecasters said on Sunday that they were expecting only minimal changes in strength for the next few days.

Flooding from the storm’s heavy rains led to the death of at least one person in Puerto Rico, the island’s Department of Public Safety said on Saturday in a statement. A woman who had been missing since Thursday drowned near Rincón, in the northwest portion of the island.

As it advances northward, the center of the storm may skirt close to the coast of Florida without making landfall, or it may come ashore briefly on Sunday, forecasters said. Officials in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina were closely monitoring the storm, which is expected to affect the coasts of any of those states.

Complicating the emergency response to the storm, reported coronavirus cases continue to rise sharply in all four of those states, and health officials have warned that their health care systems could be strained beyond capacity with the influx of new patients. The situation would worsen if the storm knocks out power across wide areas or forces evacuations of hospitals and nursing homes.

Emergency management officials have been drawing up new plans to accommodate people who must flee their homes, including placing evacuees in hotel rooms instead of shelters like converted school gymnasiums.

Summer in Florida, with its routine thunderstorms, sweaty nights and unforgiving mosquitoes, is not for the faint of heart. But the summer of 2020 is proving especially despairing, Patricia Mazzei, our Miami bureau chief, writes.

A public health crisis. An economic calamity, with more than a million Floridians out of work and an unemployment payment system that was one of the slowest in the country. And now an early debut of hurricane season, to remind Florida that the inevitable convergence of the pandemic and the weather is likely to play out again, and perhaps much more seriously than this relatively mild storm, before this nightmare season ends.

It should be too early to worry much about storms in Florida, Ms. Mazzei writes, but this annus horribilis would not have it any other way.

“It’s just kind of been the way 2020’s gone so far,” said Howard Tipton, the administrator for St. Lucie County, on Florida’s Treasure Coast. “But we roll with it, right? We don’t get to determine the cards that we’re dealt.”

Kevin Cho, 31, a Florida National Guard captain and a nurse practitioner who treats Covid-19 patients in the intensive care units of several Miami public hospitals, said the approach of the storm was “really stretching our limits.”

Many poor people contracting the disease “are losing their jobs, and now they’re faced with a hurricane,” he added. “How could they prepare for a hurricane when they have been exhausted of every resource they have? This hurricane is only going to make things worse.”

While Isaias’ winds remain capable of significant damage, its heavy rains may be the biggest punch the storm packs, especially in the Bahamas. Forecasters said totals of 4 to 8 inches of rain were likely there before the storm passes, with isolated areas of 12 inches — more than enough to cause potentially deadly flash flooding.

Much of the East Coast of the United States will also get a soaking, though the totals are not expected to be as extreme as that. Two to four inches are expected in most of eastern Florida, with isolated areas of up to six inches. Northeast Florida will get a little bit less, as the storm’s center tracks offshore, but the eastern Carolinas and coastal Virginia will get a bit more as the storm makes landfall there, forecasters said.

The storm will still be dumping 2 to 4 inches of rain in its path, with up to 6 possible in some areas, when it reaches New Jersey, New York and New England Tuesday and Wednesday.

Three years after a dozen nursing home residents died during Hurricane Irma, Florida’s former ombudsman warned that Isaias will test nursing homes already battling the coronavirus pandemic.

Lawmakers passed regulations after air-conditioners failed at one home in 2017, leading to heat-related deaths. They mandated that nursing homes install backup generators in case of severe weather.

But this May, the state issued 95 variances — passes that allow facilities to operate despite noncompliance — to nursing homes that had not met the emergency requirements, according to The Miami Herald.

The former ombudsman, Brian Lee, who now runs Families for Better Care, an advocacy group for nursing home and elder-care residents, said he doubted state officials who said the nursing homes were prepared.

“I can’t imagine that these facilities are prepped and ready to handle a pandemic and a hurricane simultaneously,” Mr. Lee said. “They are going to be over their heads and under water. It is a total recipe for disaster.”

Kristen Knapp, a spokeswoman for the Florida Health Care Association, which lobbies for nursing homes, said that not every nursing home that applied for a variance was without a generator. Some facilities applied for other reasons, including that they had not been able to perform inspections because of the coronavirus, she said.

According to records from Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration, some nursing homes that were approved for variances were without generators as recently as March, and were allowed to operate without generators until June 1.

An agency spokesman said in an email that all nursing homes and assisted living facilities have generators on site.

Some facilities plan to shelter in place rather than evacuate residents. Mr. Lee said he was concerned that social distancing would be impossible if dozens of residents were gathered in a common space.

“You get 120 residents and their caregivers in a large room in the middle of a pandemic — social distancing is out the window,” Mr. Lee said. “This pandemic is really a threat to the residents in these facilities, not just from a health care perspective, but for natural disasters as well.”

Credit…Daniel A. Varela/Miami Herald, via Associated Press

Gov. Ron DeSantis said on Friday that state-run coronavirus testing sites, which are mostly housed under tents at outdoor venues, will be closed if they are within Isaias’s anticipated path.

Many testing sites would be unsafe for lab personnel during the storm’s wind and rain, Mr. DeSantis said during a news conference on Friday. Labs run by private companies, hospitals and local county health departments will not be affected by the state’s closure.

The governor, a Republican, had planned to close all of the state’s testing sites from Friday to Wednesday. But the Division of Emergency Management eventually said it would keep testing sites open in counties that should be unaffected.

In Miami-Dade County, the center of Florida’s coronavirus outbreak, Mayor Carlos Gimenez ordered the county-run sites to close from Friday until at least Monday.

The county has recorded more than 20,000 cases in the past seven days.

“We have thousands of tests that will not be conducted until we get these test sites up and running again,” Mr. Gimenez said during a news conference on Friday. “We have to put safety first.”

On Thursday, Florida recorded 253 deaths, the state’s most deaths in a single day. While the number of daily new cases has declined in the second half of July, the number of daily deaths has trended upward.

Reporting was contributed by Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, Patrick J. Lyons, Patricia Mazzei, Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio, Aimee Ortiz and Will Wright.

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