Tropical Storm Erika to lose steam, but death toll rising

Erika: State of Emergency in Florida

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (AP) -- Tropical Storm Erika began to lose steam Friday as it dumped rain over Haiti and the Dominican Republic, but it left behind a trail of destruction that included at least a dozen people killed on the small eastern Caribbean island of Dominica, authorities said.

Heavy winds from the storm toppled trees and power lines in the Dominican Republic as it began to cut across neighboring Haiti. The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said the system was expected to move north across the island of Hispaniola, where the high mountains would weaken it to a tropical depression on Saturday and possibly cause it to dissipate entirely.

There's a chance it could regain some strength off northern Cuba and people in Florida should still keep an eye on it and brace for heavy rain, said John Cagialosi, a hurricane specialist at the center. "This is a potentially heavy rain event for a large part of the state," he said.

See photos of Erika making landfall:

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Tropical Storm Erika to lose steam, but death toll rising
Tropical Storm Erika in a satellite image on Aug. 28, 2015. (Photo via NOAA)
TS Erika is hurting lots of us now esp in #Dominica http://t.co/gtGJtzCo8t
Devastating images out of Dominica as tropical storm Erika slammed the country . http://t.co/7rOjGyRg0N http://t.co/FIYs389p2x
People lets 🙏🏽 4 those caught up in #TropicalStormErika in #Dominica #ThisIsNews #caribbean @SkyNews @BBCBreaking http://t.co/d4lo3RLPZg
Tropical Storm Erika in a satellite image on Aug. 27, 2015. (Photo via NOAA)
This visible image of Tropical Storm Erika was taken from NOAA's GOES-East satellite on Aug. 26 at 7:45 a.m. EDT as it headed toward the Lesser Antilles. (Photo via NASA/NOAA GOES Project)
On Aug. 25 at 2:11 a.m. EDT, GPM passed over the northwestern part of the storm and found heaviest rain falling at a rate of 1.1 inches per hour. (Photo via NASA/JAXA/NRL)
On Aug. 25 at 01:59 UTC, the AIRS instrument aboard NASA's Aqua satellite saw cloud tops around Erika's center were near -63F/-53C, indicating strong thunderstorms. (Photo via NASA/JPL, Ed Olsen)
NOAA's GOES-East satellite captured this visible light image of newborn Atlantic Tropical Storm Erika on August 25 at 7:45 a.m. EDT. (Photo via NASA/NOAA GOES Project)
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Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for the entire state, which could begin seeing the effects of the system late Sunday and early Monday and officials urged residents to prepare by filling vehicle gas tanks, stockpiling food and water, and determining whether they live in an evacuation zone.

Erika's heavy rains set off floods and mudslides in Dominica that are now blamed for at least a dozen deaths, the government said. At least two dozen people remained missing and authorities warned the death toll could rise.

"There are additional bodies recovered but it is an ongoing operation," Police Chief Daniel Carbon said, declining to provide specifics. "It will take us a couple of days to recover as many bodies as we can. So the count will increase."

Erika is a particularly wet storm, and was expected to dump up to 8 inches (20 centimeters) of rain across the drought-stricken region.

Given how weak the storm is and how dry Puerto Rico and parts of Florida have been, "it could be a net benefit, this thing," said MIT meteorology professor Kerry Emanuel.

The center of Erika was located about 25 miles (45 kilometers) southeast of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and was moving west at about 21 mph (33 kph), the Hurricane Center said. The storm's maximum sustained winds dropped slightly to 45 mph (75 kph).

Erika drenched the popular tourist areas of Punta Cana, Samana and Puerto Plata, as well as the capital of Santo Domingo.

The storm previously slid to the south of Puerto Rico, knocking out power to more than 200,000 people and causing more than $16 million in damage to crops including plantains, bananas and coffee, but causing no major damage or injuries.

Dominica, meanwhile, was struggling in the aftermath. Assistant Police Superintendent Claude Weekes said authorities still haven't been able to access many areas in the mountainous island because of impassable roads and bridges. "The aftermath is loads of damage," he said. "It really has been devastating."

An elderly blind man and two children were killed when a mudslide engulfed their home in the southeast of Dominica. Another man was found dead in the capital following a mudslide at his home.

People on the island told of narrowly escaping being engulfed by water as Erika downed trees and power lines while unleashing heavy floods that swept cars down streets and ripped scaffolding off some buildings.

"I was preparing to go to work when all of a sudden I heard this loud noise and saw the place flooded with water," said Shanie James, a 30-year-old mother who works at a bakery. "We had to run for survival."

Mudslides destroyed dozens of homes across Dominica, including that of 46-year-old security guard Peter Julian, who had joined friends after leaving work.

"When I returned, I saw that my house that I have lived in for over 20 years was gone," he said. "I am blessed to be alive. God was not ready for me ... I have lost everything and now have to start all over again."

Meanwhile in the Pacific, Ignacio strengthened into a hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 90 mph (150 kph). It was centered about 785 miles (1,260 kilometers) east-southeast of Hilo, Hawaii, and was moving northwest near 8 mph (13 kph).

Also in the Pacific, Jimena turned into a Category 2 hurricane with maximum sustained winds near 105 mph (165 kph). It was centered about 1,135 miles (1,825 kilometers) southwest of the southern tip of Mexico's Baja California peninsula. It does not pose a threat to land.

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Baptiste reported from Roseau, Dominica. Associated Press writers Danica Coto in San Juan, Puerto Rico and Ben Fox and Tamara Lush in Miami contributed to this report.

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