Hurricane Isaias strengthened slightly as it lashed the Bahamas on Saturday, bearing down on Florida, and was expected to approach the southeast of the state later in the day before traveling up the eastern U.S. seaboard.
Florida’s well-honed hurricane responses have been partly upended by its grappling with one of the country’s worst outbreaks of the novel coronavirus.
The emergency operations center in Miami, usually a beehive of activity ahead of a storm, was mostly empty with plastic dividers set up between work stations and fans with ultraviolet lights hung around the room in the hope of eradicating any floating virus particles. Many emergency officials are instead working remotely.
“It’s not a perfect system,” said Frank Rollason, Miami-Dade’s director of emergency management, “but what we’re facing to today with COVID, we’re trying to avoid packing all of those people into the emergency operations center.”
Isaias was carrying top sustained winds of 80 miles per hour (130 km per hour) and was located about 40 miles (60 km) west-southwest of the Bahamas capital Nassau at 1100 ET (1500 GMT) heading northwest, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
It made landfall on Andros Island in the Bahamas and was due to pass over or near other islands in the central and northwest Bahamas on Saturday, bringing a danger of damaging storm surges of up to 5 feet (1.52 m) over normal tide levels, the NHC said.
The storm, a Category 1 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, prompted authorities in parts of Florida to close COVID-19 testing sites and people to stock up on essentials.
Isaias is expected to move near the east coast of the Florida peninsula late Saturday through Sunday before hitting the eastern Carolinas by early next week, forecasters said.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency for a dozen counties on the Atlantic coast, which makes it easier to mobilize resources. North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper followed suit.
“Remain vigilant,” DeSantis said at a news conference on Saturday morning, warning that slight variations in Isaias’ path could make the difference between coastal communities facing hurricane-force winds or something more like a severe thunderstorm.
Scores of hotel rooms along Florida’s east coast have been set aside for any people with COVID-19 who are ordered to evacuate their homes where they have been isolating themselves, the governor said.
The storm has caused at least two deaths in the Dominican Republic and torn down trees, flooded streets and knocked out power for thousands of homes and businesses in Puerto Rico, according to media reports.
Public beaches, parks, marinas, golf courses and coronavirus testing sites were closed in Miami-Dade County on Friday.
DeSantis said testing sites would remain open on Florida’s west coast, and testing at hospitals and community centers may also continue.