TROPICAL Storm Erika has forced the closure of schools and airports as it cuts a path towards Antigua and Barbuda.
Officials ordered the closures and prepared shelters ahead of the storm.
Authorities in Antigua and Barbuda warned of flash floods given the extremely dry conditions caused by the worst drought to hit the Caribbean in recent years.
Boats at Shell Beach Marina on Antigua’s north coast have been out of the water since Saturday, with people not taking chances as Erika approaches. “Too many times we’ve seen things happen that were not predicted,” employee Caroline Davy said.
Authorities in the nearby Dutch Caribbean territory of St Maarten said schools and government offices had been closed, while casinos, restaurants and other businesses have been urged to shut. Officials warned they might temporarily suspend power and water services as the storm approached.
Erika was expected to move near Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, and all airports in the US Virgin Islands were closed to incoming flights until further notice.
“This is a fast-moving storm, and so we expect conditions to deteriorate rapidly,” an official at the hurricane centre said.
Tropical storm warnings were issued for Puerto Rico, the US and British Virgin Islands and the Leeward Islands.
Much of the eastern half of Puerto Rico is under a severe drought. Because of this, water rationing programmes are in effect on the eastern side of the island.
The strongest winds with Erika are expected to be between 40mph and 60mph. Such winds would be mostly in gusts and over the water, as well as over the highest terrain of the islands. These winds could lead to isolated tree damage, sporadic power cuts and localised damage to loose items and poorly built structures.
The storm is expected to be near south Florida by Monday, according to James Franklin, chief hurricane forecaster at the Miami-based centre.
The last hurricane to hit Florida was Wilma in October 2005. The Florida State Emergency Operations Centre was partially activated on Wednesday as officials monitored the advancing storm.
“We are preparing the protective and responsive measures we will need if the storm continues to develop, out of an abundance of caution,” director Bryan W Koon said.
Florida’s Division of Emergency Management advised residents and visitors to keep an eye on local news for further instructions and be sure they have disaster supply kits fully stocked and evacuation plans in place.
The official forecast is for Erika to remain a tropical storm the rest of the week, then become a Category 1 hurricane early on Sunday morning as it churns about 100 miles east of Miami.
Meteorologist John Gaughan said: “For me the next biggest hurdle for Erika and Florida is, does Erika track north of Puerto Rico, south of or right over? Each will give us a huge clue as to the impact of the state.
“It is possible that Erika could impact south-east Florida as a category 2 or 3 hurricane, ultimately bringing tropical storm conditions to Jacksonville by Monday evening.”
The US government’s annual forecast shows a quieter-than-normal 2015 Atlantic hurricane season, with six to ten named storms and up to four reaching hurricane status of 74mph.