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The storm, the ninth to be named in what has become a busy hurricane season, has come at a time when many people in the Southeast are already beleaguered by the coronavirus outbreak. Officials in the region are juggling the response to a storm with a pandemic, and business owners are wary of being dealt yet another crippling blow.
Isaias, which is written as Isaías in Spanish and pronounced ees-ah-EE-ahs, clobbered the Bahamas with hurricane conditions over the weekend after hitting parts of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Over the weekend, Isaias buffeted Florida’s eastern edge with heavy rainfall and powerful winds, yet it failed to deliver the punch that state officials had feared.
The Carolinas now face the dual threat of the storm and the virus.
The center of Isaias is projected to hit the South Carolina and North Carolina coasts later on Monday, and then drive inland over North Carolina on Monday night, according to the National Hurricane Center forecast.
Rainfall will range from three to six inches in most areas, with a few areas getting up to eight inches — enough to produce flash flooding. Widespread power outages are also expected.
To try to enforce social distancing, shelters in North Carolina will give each evacuee 115 square feet of space, Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina said. He encouraged people to evacuate to the homes of family or friends, or to a hotel, if they can afford to, to keep shelters from becoming crowded.
“I know that North Carolinians have had to dig deep in recent months to tap into our strength and resilience during the pandemic, and that hasn’t been easy,” he said. “But with this storm on the way, we have to dig a little deeper.”
North Carolina Coronavirus Map and Case Count
A detailed county map shows the extent of the coronavirus outbreak, with tables of the number of cases by county.
In South Carolina, Myrtle Beach will probably see the brunt of the storm on Monday night, when the rain will increase and the risk of flash floods will be greatest. There could also be a storm surge of three to five feet, and a possibility of tornadoes.
Even before the storm hit, a swimmer was reported missing at Myrtle Beach. A witness said they had seen a swimmer in distress around 8 p.m. Sunday, and despite crews searching in the water and using helicopters, the swimmer had not been found by Monday morning, when it became too dangerous for crews to remain in the water.
Gov. Henry McMaster of South Carolina said on Friday that he had no plans to call for evacuations. But North Carolina has declared a state of emergency.
Isaias has tended to fluctuate, and so have the forecasts.
Why have predictions for Isaias seemed so changeable? Adam Sobel, an atmospheric scientist, professor and director of the Initiative on Extreme Weather and Climate at Columbia University, explains.
Isaias has been a tricky storm since it formed. Actually, it was tricky even before it formed, when forecasts benefited from a practice that the National Hurricane Center began three years ago.
The center’s meteorologists have always looked for weather systems in the Atlantic that could become tropical cyclones. But before 2017, they did not start issuing advisories about likely tracks and intensities until the storms actually formed. That left a big hole in the center’s warning system: The public heard days in advance about storms that developed far out to sea, but got much less notice for those forming close to shore.
The center patched that hole by starting to flag “potential tropical cyclones” that could reach land within 48 hours, even though they were still just an idea in the minds of forecasters. Now the public gets the word earlier, though less definitively.
A storm is born: When a low-pressure system that was dithering over the tropical Atlantic last week posed a threat to Puerto Rico and the island of Hispaniola, the center designated it Potential Tropical Cyclone Nine and started issuing forecasts and warnings. The system formed into Isaias, but it was far from clear yet what its future held.
Isaias weakened while passing over the mountainous Dominican Republic, as storms generally do, but it strengthened more quickly than expected afterward, and by the time it reached the Bahamas on Friday it was a Category 1 hurricane.
At that point, the forecast track threatened nearly the whole Eastern Seaboard of the United States, from South Florida to Maine. The storm could have affected almost anywhere, everywhere or nowhere along that track, as far as we could tell.
A near miss: Florida, the closest potential target, braced for a hurricane, but as the weekend progressed, it gradually became clear that the storm would only graze the state as a ragged tropical storm that seemed likely to stay that way until landfall in the Carolinas.
Now, though, Isaias has started to reorganize yet again. An eyewall was constructing itself in the images from radar, and the storm reached hurricane strength again on Monday night.
A helping hand: At the same time, the wind shear that used to look as though it would diminish the storm may now sustain it. The hurricane center noted for the first time on Monday morning that “an unusually strong winter-type Jetstream” would produce “strong baroclinic forcing” — meteorologist-speak for what drives nontropical storms like nor’easters — and would “produce very strong wind gusts along the Mid-Atlantic states.”
That is why, a day before Isaias is expected to reach New York City, we now have a forecast for hurricane-strength gusts in the area, with the potential for widespread power outages and other problems that were not on the radar, literally or figuratively, until today.
The forecasts issued for Isaias and other tricky storms these days are amazingly good by historical standards, much better than a few decades ago. But as they raise our expectations and turn “unknown unknowns” into “known unknowns,” they can still confuse and disorient us.
Emergency managers worry about communication during a pandemic.
W. Craig Fugate, a former administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said his biggest concern this hurricane season is that coastal residents will stay home to avoid the coronavirus even if they face a real storm surge risk.
“We often talk about evacuations, and we don’t really clarify why we’re evacuating,” he said. “People drown. And we don’t say that.”
“Covid is scary,” added Mr. Fugate, a Florida resident who once ran the state’s division of emergency management. “For a lot of people, they’re thinking, ‘You know, evacuation, maybe that’s not so critical.’ We need to be clear and precise: The reason we do evacuations is drownings.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida said on Monday that the brush from Isaias gave officials a trial run for how to deal with sick evacuees. In Palm Beach County, for example, people who arrived at a shelter with a recent positive coronavirus test result or with a high temperature were sent to a nearby hotel instead.
“They had a safe place to stay until the storm passed,” the governor said.
On a more positive note, Mr. Fugate said, virus contagion fears could also keep people who do not need to evacuate off the roads.
“The fewer people that are not in evacuation zones that leave, the better for people who do need to leave,” he said.
And he offered this advice: “Wear a mask. Pack masks. If you’re evacuating, take masks with you. If you’re out shopping: Wear a mask.”
The Northeast can expect a soaking, too.
Much of the East Coast of the United States will get a soaking, forecasters say. The National Hurricane Center said on Monday that tropical storm warnings and watches are in effect all way up the Eastern Seaboard, including Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., and Stonington, Maine.
With three to six inches expected across the eastern Carolinas and Virginia and isolated areas getting up to eight inches, significant flash floods and urban flooding is can be expected through the middle of the week, and widespread minor to moderate river flooding is possible in the region. The rain could be at its heaviest in the Chesapeake Bay region of Maryland, forecasters said, with as much as seven inches falling there in just eight hours.
“People don’t realize it, but in the Mid-Atlantic and a lot of areas, flooding actually causes the most loss of life and damage,” said Jeremy Geiger, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. “So be aware of where you live, and what’s going on.”
Heavy rainfall in northeast New Jersey, New York City and the lower Hudson Valley was expected to begin late Monday night, building into heavier downpours by Tuesday afternoon and evening, according to Matthew Wunsch, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. Emergency management officials in New York City said the storm might bring three to six inches of rain in some areas.
Winds are expected to pick up on Tuesday afternoon, he said. Sustained winds could be between 30 to 45 m.p.h., with gusts up to 65 m.p.h.
Tuesday night could bring the possibility of flooding along the southern coast of Long Island and the New Jersey coastline near New York City, Mr. Wunsch said. He said coastal flooding was expected to coincide with high tide, which is between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. on Tuesday, bringing an additional one to two feet of storm surge. New York City said that it would close all city-run beaches to swimming on Tuesday, though surfing will be permitted in certain areas, officials said.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said on Sunday that the state was deploying high-water vehicles, pumps and generators to areas that might be affected by the storm.
Storm surge could also bring high water into Lower Manhattan, according to the New York City Emergency Management Department, and officials are deploying sand bags and other barriers in the area.
The head of Puerto Rico’s power utility is resigning after widespread outages.
The resignation of José Ortiz, the executive director of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, known as PREPA, will be effective on Wednesday, the utility’s governing board said in a statement on Monday.
The statement praised Mr. Ortiz for his work over the past two years but did not mention that tens of thousands of PREPA customers were left without electricity after Isaias barreled past Puerto Rico late last week. The outages exposed the persistent weakness of the island’s power grid, which had fallen into disrepair even before Hurricane Maria devastated it in 2017.
Last week, a blackout unrelated to Isaias began before the storm hit and left more than 300,000 of the utility’s 1.5 million customers without power. Another 400,000 customers lost electricity after the storm.
Mr. Ortiz was appointed in July 2018 as the utility struggled to recover from bankruptcy and Hurricane Maria. He said on Monday that at the time of his hiring, he had committed to the job for two years.
Reporting was contributed by Michael Gold, Rebecca Halleck, Patricia Mazzei, Rick Rojas, Lucy Tompkins and Mihir Zaveri.