Hurricane Isaias ripped shingles off roofs and blew over trees as it carved its way through the Bahamas and headed toward the Florida coast, where officials in Miami said they were closing beaches, marinas and parks.
Miami Mayor Carlos Gimenez said Friday that 20 evacuation centres were on standby that could be set up with Covid-19 safety measures.
“We still don’t think there is a need to open shelters for this storm, but they are ready,” he said.
Authorities in North Carolina ordered the evacuation of Ocracoke Island, which was slammed by last year’s Hurricane Dorian, starting Saturday evening.
Meanwhile, officials in the Bahamas evacuated people on Abaco island, who have been living in temporary structures since Dorian.
People living in the eastern end of Grand Bahama were also being moved.
Isaias had maximum sustained winds of 85mph on Saturday morning and some strengthening was possible later Saturday, the US National Hurricane Center in Miami said.
The storm was centred about 50 miles south of Nassau in the Bahamas and was moving northwest at 12mph.
Forecasters said some decrease in its forward motion was expected.
Paula Miller, Mercy Corps director for the Bahamas, told The Associated Press that while the islands can normally withstand strong hurricanes, some have been destabilised by the coronavirus pandemic and the damage caused by Dorian.
“With everything not quite shored up, property not secured, home not prepared, even a Category 1 will be enough to set them back,” she said.
A hurricane warning was in effect for Florida’s east coast from Boca Raton, just north of Miami, about 150 miles north to the Volusia-Flagler county line.
A hurricane watch was in effect from Hallendale Beach to south of Boca Raton.
Florida governor Ron DeSantis said the state was “fully prepared for this and any future storm during this hurricane season”, with stockpiles of personal protective equipment, generators, bottled water and meals ready to be distributed.
But he urged people to have seven days of food, water and medication on hand and said state-run coronavirus testing sites in the areas where the storm could hit would be closed.
“Our sites, because they’re outdoors with tents, if it were to get 40-, 50-mile-per-hour winds, it would just collapse,” he said.
“Safety is paramount for that.”
Miami’s mayor said that social-distancing measures prompted by Covid-19 meant each person in shelters needed to have 40 square feet) and no more cafeteria-style dining would be allowed. People who are infected with the new coronavirus and need to evacuate will be isolated in classrooms separate them from the general population, Mr Gimenez said.
In Daytona Beach and Polk County, authorities distributed sandbags and other officials advised people to have emergency provisions at home sufficient for three to seven days.
A hurricane warning was in effect for northwest Bahamas but was no longer in effect for the central Bahamas.
“Continue to hunker down,” said Trevor Basden, director of the Bahamas meteorology department.
Two of those islands, Abaco and Grand Bahama, were battered by Dorian, a Category five storm that hovered over the area for two days and killed at least 70 people, with more than 280 reported missing.
People are still living in tents on both islands, and officials said crews tried to remove leftover debris ahead of Isaias.
The country’s prime minister Hubert Minnis relaxed a coronavirus lockdown as a result of the storm, but imposed a 10pm to 5am curfew.
He said supermarkets, pharmacies, petrol stations and hardware stores would be open as long as weather permitted.
The Bahamas has reported more than 570 confirmed Covid-19 cases and at least 14 deaths.
It recently barred travellers from the US following a surge in cases after it reopened to international tourism.
On Thursday, while still a tropical storm, Isaias toppled trees, destroyed crops and caused widespread flooding and small landslides in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, where hundreds of thousands of people were left without power and water.
Officials reported that a man died in the Dominican Republic when he was electrocuted by a fallen electrical cable.
More than 5,000 people were evacuated, and more than 130 communities remained cut off by floodwaters.
In Puerto Rico, the National Guard rescued at least 35 people from floodwaters that swept away one woman who remained missing.
Isaias was expected to drop from four to eight inches of rain in the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands.