MIAMI – Heavy rains pelted the northern Caribbean as a weather disturbance strengthened into Tropical Storm Fred south of Puerto Rico late Tuesday following a quiet month of no named storms in the region.
Power outages were already reported in Puerto Rico, where Luma, the company in charge of the U.S. territory's transmission and distribution system, warned those who depend on electricity for life-saving medical devices to activate emergency plans.
“Puerto Rico's system ... continues to be very fragile,” the company said, referring to a power grid that was razed by Hurricane Maria in September 2017.
The storm's center was 45 miles (70 kilometers) south-southwest of Ponce, Puerto Rico, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Its maximum sustained winds increased to 40 mph (65 kph).
Tropical storm warnings were in effect for the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico for Fred, which is the sixth named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season.
“The most important thing today is preparation,” said Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi. “I am not going to minimize the potential impact of this event...we expect a lot of rain.”
Pierluisi said government agencies would close by noon Tuesday and officials noted that some gas stations had closed after running out of fuel. The heaviest rain was expected to fall overnight, forecasters said.
Eight shelters were opened across the island, though officials said only about seven people had checked in by midevening.
“Do not wait until the last minute to mobilize,” said Nino Correa, Puerto Rico's emergency management commissioner. “We don't want to have fatalities.”
The Dominican Republic, Haiti and the southern Bahamas could get hit Wednesday, and people in Florida were urged to monitor updates, but forecasters said it remained uncertain where the storm would move later in the week.
Copious rains hit parts of the eastern Caribbean during Monday night, including the islands of Guadeloupe and Dominica.
More than a month had passed since the last named Atlantic storm, Hurricane Elsa, but this time of summer usually marks the start of the peak of hurricane season.
The hurricane center issued warnings for Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Dominican Republic on the south coast from Punta Palenque eastward and on the north coast from Cabo Frances Viejo eastward. A watch was in effect for Hispaniola's north coast, from Cabo Frances in the Dominican Republic to Gonaives, Haiti.
The Turks and Caicos Islands and the southeastern Bahamas were also under a tropical storm watch, including the Acklins, Crooked Island, Long Cay, the Inaguas, Mayaguana, and the Ragged Islands.
The storm was expected to produce rainfall of 2 to 4 inches (5 to 10 centimeters) over the Leeward Islands, Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico, with up to 6 inches (15 centimeters) in some areas, and could lead to flooding and mudslides.