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Hurricane Dorian appears to spare Puerto Rico, heads for Florida

A surfer enters the water as Tropical Storm Dorian approaches in Patillas, Puerto Rico. Photograph:( AFP )

AFP Fajardo, Puerto Rico Aug 29, 2019, 04.16 PM (IST)

A strengthening Hurricane Dorian appeared to have largely spared Puerto Rico, barreling past the US territory still recovering from a powerful storm two years ago.

The National Hurricane Center (NHC) in Miami said the hurricane watch and tropical storm warning for the island had been lifted, and that "Dorian continues to move away from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands."

"The threat has already passed," Puerto Rico's new governor, Wanda Vazquez, told a news conference Wednesday.

Vazquez announced that schools would reopen and people should return to work from Thursday. She said the storm had given the island a chance to evaluate its hurricane response.

Watch: Tropical storm Dorian turns into a hurricane

"These days have been a real exercise where we have been able to re-evaluate and make adjustments in all our responses to protect the people of Puerto Rico," she said.

But the danger for other areas is far from over: "Dorian is forecast to strengthen into a major hurricane during the next couple of days," the NHC said.

Rainfall from the storm in the Bahamas and the southeastern United States "may cause life-threatening flash floods," it added.

The storm's latest path puts Dorian on a trajectory to strike the Atlantic coast of Florida -- which declared a state of emergency on Wednesday -- or neighbouring Georgia by the end of the weekend. 

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis urged all residents on the east coast of his state to prepare for impact.

"It's important for Floridians on the east coast to monitor this storm closely. Every Florida resident should have seven days of supplies, including food, water and medicine, and should have a plan in case of disaster," he said in a statement. 

Dorian had earlier developed into a political as well as meteorological storm.

President Donald Trump had declared a state of emergency in Puerto Rico authorizing federal assistance even while alleging the island is "one of the most corrupt places on earth.

"Their political system is broken and their politicians are either Incompetent or Corrupt," he said on Twitter.

Trump also declared an emergency in the US Virgin Islands.

'Keep his mouth shut'

Puerto Rico's former governor Ricardo Rossello was forced to resign last month in part because of criticism over his handling of the emergency created by Maria.

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin lashed into Trump, telling CNN that the president "continues to try to belittle the people of Puerto Rico." 

She told Trump "to keep his mouth shut" and let people do the work needed to save lives.

Puerto Rico was devastated in 2017 by Hurricane Maria, a major Category 4 hurricane on a scale where five is the maximum.

It shattered the island's already shaky power grid, overwhelmed public services and left many residents homeless.

A study accepted as valid by the government, which initially put the death toll at 64, estimated that nearly 3,000 people died as a result of the hurricane and the months of disruption that followed.

Dorian, though far less powerful, was the first major test of the island's halting recovery.

As of 0900 GMT Thursday, the storm's maximum sustained winds had risen to 85 miles per hour (140 kilometres per hour) with higher gusts, according to the NHC.

Moving northwest, it is forecast to dump up to four inches (10 centimetres) of rain on the Bahamas, and up to eight inches on the southeastern United States.

Puerto Rico is still struggling to recover from back-to-back hurricanes in 2017 that killed about 3,000 people soon after the island filed for bankruptcy. On Wednesday it escaped fresh disaster as Hurricane Dorian avoided the territory and headed northwest toward Florida.

Puerto Rican public schools will be closed again on Thursday and public workers have been instructed to stay home.

Earlier in the day Dorian ploughed through the US Virgin Islands and Culebra, an island belonging to Puerto Rico, data from the National Hurricane Center (NHC) showed.

As Dorian moved northwest, preparations were mounting in the Bahamas, which could be hard hit.

Jeffrey Simmons, the country's acting director of the Department of Meteorology, said severe weather could strike the southeast Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands on Friday.

While landfall on Florida's coast is most likely, at four days out from the US mainland, forecasters said the storm could track north to the Georgia or South Carolina coasts.

Story highlights

The National Hurricane Center (NHC) in Miami said the hurricane watch and tropical storm warning for the island had been lifted, and that 'Dorian continues to move away from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.'