Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

All Eyes Tracking Erika Just to Be Ready; Emergency Officials Urge Preparation, in Case Storm Worsens

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

All Eyes Tracking Erika Just to Be Ready; Emergency Officials Urge Preparation, in Case Storm Worsens

Article excerpt

Byline: Derek Gilliam

First Coast emergency management officials are keeping an eye on Tropical Storm Erika as meteorologists predict it will gain hurricane-strength winds and hug Florida's east coast as it heads north in the warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean's Gulf Stream this weekend.

The tropical storm whipped wind and rain at 50 mph just off Puerto Rico's coast about 5 p.m. Thursday, according to the National Hurricane Center. The center has predicted the storm will travel over the island, clip the Dominican Republic and dump rain and strong winds on the Bahamas before turning north.

The last hurricane to strike Florida was Hurricane Wilma nine years ago. The Category 5 storm devastated South Florida with peak wind speeds of about 185 mph, causing more than $20 billion in damage. The hurricane killed at least five people in the state, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Tropical Storm Erika won't have nearly that impact: It's predicted to reach Category 1 level by the time it makes its way as far as North Florida. A Category 1 storm has wind speeds between 74 and 95 mph.

Still, First Coast government officials aren't taking chances and are preparing for worst-case scenarios.

Billy Estep, Nassau County director of emergency management, said if the storm develops into a hurricane and then skirts Florida's east coast, evacuations of coastal communities across the state could happen.

He said his staff are in communication with hospitals, police, fire and rescue, government officials and all other agencies involved in the county's emergency management plans.

"We are advising all of our citizens to have their plans in place, their hurricane kits stocked up and all their important papers together," he said.

Estep said he will make the decision whether to staff the central emergency management center for the weekend by Friday as forecasters plot a more accurate path for the large storm. …

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