Isaias was downgraded to a tropical storm as it continues to move toward Florida’s coastline.
After battering the Bahamas and raking parts of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic with hurricane strength wind and rain, Isaias was downgraded Saturday evening to a tropical storm.
Still, it continued its slow churn toward Florida’s coastline, and state officials said the storm would likely regain its strength as the evening progressed.
“Don’t be fooled by the downgrade,” warned Gov. Ron DeSantis at a news conference.
Floridians spent Saturday preparing for wind gusts up to 80 miles per hour and dangerous coastal surf. And forecasters said they expected Isaias to again become a Category 1 hurricane before scraping Florida’s coast.
Isaias’s projected path shifted slightly eastward, forecasters said, and was expected to possibly make landfall near Palm Beach, Jacksonville and other coastal areas in the storm’s possible path.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency offered federal disaster assistance to the state on Saturday, a move approved by President Trump, the agency announced in a statement.
Miami is no longer in the “cone” that signals the storm’s possible paths, but the National Weather Service warned that the region could still see floods from heavy rain and damage from strong winds.
Up the coast, officials in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina were closely monitoring the storm, which is expected to move north and could scrape the coasts of any of those states.
Like Florida, those three states have seen a dramatic rise in new reported cases of the coronavirus since mid-June, and more recently, health officials have warned that their health-care systems could be strained beyond capacity with the flood of new patients. Emergency management officials have been drawing up new plans to deal with people fleeing amid the virus, including placing people in hotel rooms instead of congregate shelters like basketball gyms.
Even so, Keith Acree, a North Carolina emergency management spokesman, said the state was urging coastal residents to make plans to stay with family or friends further inland. “A shelter this year is not really where you want to be this year during a pandemic,” he said.
As of 5 p.m., the tropical storm was about 115 miles southeast of Fort Lauderdale and moving toward the coast at about 10 miles per hour. Its winds were swirling at about 70 m.p.h., just under the 74 m.p.h. threshold that would make it a Category 1 hurricane.
In Florida, a hurricane warning remains in effect from Boca Raton to the northern edge of Volusia County, which includes Daytona Beach. A tropical storm warning extends from the northern border of Volusia County to the coast just southeast of Jacksonville. And a tropical storm watch reaches about 40 miles north of Charleston, S.C.
There could be dangerous storm surges up to four feet high in some parts of Florida, and flooding caused by the storm led to at least one death in Puerto Rico, where a woman drowned when storms formed by Isaias dragged her away in her car in the municipality of Rincón, in the northwest of the island, the Puerto Rico Department of Public Safety announced Saturday in a statement. The woman had gone missing on Thursday, the authorities said.
The storm is expected to weaken and be off the coast of Georgia on Monday morning, and off the coast of South Carolina by Monday evening.
Palm Beach County opened four general population centers at one middle school and three high schools Saturday morning as Isaias continued to stretch up the Atlantic Coast. The shelters are available only to residents who live in mobile homes or “sub-standard” housing, the county said.
As of Saturday afternoon, there were 150 people at the shelters, officials said.
Individuals older than 2 will be required to wear face coverings, and temperature screenings will be conducted for all residents who want to enter the shelters. The county noted that social distancing protocols would be in effect, and families staying at the shelters would be kept further apart from each other. The county also said it would open one pet friendly shelter for animals.
Still, county officials on Saturday urged residents to stay home and avoid congregating in settings like shelters, if possible. For those living in less stable housing, such as mobile homes, officials recommended sheltering with a family member or friend who resides in a sturdy home, or relocating to a hotel.
Bill Johnson, the emergency management director for Palm Beach County, said on Saturday that storm conditions would begin impacting the county in the evening. The county has issued a voluntary evacuation order for residents who live in evacuation Zone A, which includes mobile and manufactured homes.
“There is Covid in every aspect of your hurricane preparedness needs,” Mr. Johnson said at a news conference on Friday. “Shelters should be considered your last resort.”
Nursing homes, already tested by the pandemic, may be vulnerable.
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.”
Florida is closing state-run coronavirus testing sites in the storm’s path.
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.
Forecasters predicted an active hurricane season, and it seems they were right.
Because of warm ocean temperatures and other conditions this year, weather experts said in May that there would probably be more than the average of 12 named storms.
The season, which runs from June 1 to November 30, is only one-third over, and Isaias is already its ninth named storm, which requires maximum sustained winds above 38 miles per hour.
June and July are usually quiet, which means the 2020 season could approach the record of 27 named storms set in 2005 — the only time the National Hurricane Center had to use Greek letters for some names.
Two factors combine to make the August to October period more active. Ocean warmth, which provides the energy that fuels tropical storms and hurricanes, reaches its peak in late summer. And differential winds that can weaken storms by disrupting their rotating, or cyclonic, structure are at their quietest.
Of the nine storms so far, seven were tropical storms, with wind speeds below 74 miles an hour. The first hurricane, Hanna, which struck South Texas last week, was a Category 1 storm, with winds below 96 m.p.h. and so far Isaias’s strength is about the same.
So while the season is busy, it remains to be seen whether another of the predictions by the experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are borne out. They forecast that three to six storms this season would be major hurricanes, with sustained winds of 111 m.p.h. or higher.
Florida-bound travelers facing delays because of Isaias may include two astronauts scheduled to depart from the International Space Station on Saturday.
The astronauts, Robert L. Behnken and Douglas G. Hurley, blasted off to the space station in May in the Crew Dragon capsule built and operated by SpaceX, the rocket company started by Elon Musk. They are scheduled to splash down on Sunday afternoon, but the storm is complicating that plan.
NASA and SpaceX have seven potential sites in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico where the capsule and its passengers can splash down. But the track of Isaias ruled out the three in the Atlantic.
At the splashdown site, winds must be less than 10 miles per hour, and there are additional constraints on waves and rain. In addition, helicopters that take part in the recovery of the capsule must be able to fly and land safely.
Conditions may be calm enough at the two westernmost splashdown sites, off Pensacola and Panama City. If the two astronauts cannot leave on Saturday, NASA could decide to push back the departure by one day.
Reporting was contributed by Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, Kenneth Chang, Richard Fausset, Henry Fountain, Patricia Mazzei, Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio,Frances Robles and Will Wright.