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Keys begins evacuating as Debby moves toward Florida
Storm downgraded, but expected to regain hurricane status
MIAMI (CNN) -- A state of emergency was declared in the Florida Keys today as Debby, newly downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm, spun off the northern coast of Hispaniola, the island shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti. But forecasters said the storm -- now moving due west -- could strengthen again and continue on an unpredictable path that might lead toward Cuba or South Florida after spinning through the Bahamas.
Although the center of the storm just missed Puerto Rico, Debby brought heavy rain and flooding to the island.
At 11 a.m. EDT, the center of the storm was about 30 miles (48 km) east-northeast of Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic. This is also about 155 miles (250 km) southeast of Grand Turk Island, near 19.9 north latitude and 70.0 west longitude.
Debby is moving toward the west around 16 mph (26 km/h). "This motion will bring the storm along or just north of the northern coast of the Dominican Republic today," the National Hurricane Center in Miami reported.
Maximum sustained winds are near 70 mph (110 km/h) with stronger gusts, particularly in mountainous areas.
Tropical storm-force winds extended outward up to 175 miles (280 km).
Hurricane watches and warnings
A hurricane warning is in effect for the central and southeast Bahamas, the Turks and Caicos Islands, and for the north coast of the Dominican Republic. A hurricane warning means hurricane conditions are expected within the next 24 hours.
A hurricane watch is in effect for the north coast of Cuba, including the provinces of Guantanamo, Holguin and Las Tunas. The watch will probably be extended westward later on Wednesday.
A tropical storm warning and a hurricane watch also are in effect for Haiti, north of Port-au-Prince, and for the northwest Bahamas. A hurricane watch means hurricane conditions are possible in the next 36 hours.
Debby is "struggling" because the mountains of Hispaniola are sapping its energy, according to Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center
Although the storm dropped down to tropical storm status Wednesday, it was expected to intensify over open water as it nears South Florida by Friday. The National Hurricane Center said it may post a hurricane watch for South Florida on Wednesday.
Mayfield told CNN that computer projections show the storm tracking farther south than first thought, meaning Cuba and the Florida Keys could fall in Debby's path. Emergency officials in Florida urged residents to begin paying close attention to weather reports.
Heavy rain in Puerto Rico
In the Dominican Republic, a country of 8 million people, there were no immediate reports of injuries or property damage, but residents were alert for flooding, mindful that more than 100 people were killed in September 1998 when Hurricane Georges triggered floods and mudslides.
Residents in flood-prone areas were evacuated to shelters, while farmers welcomed Debby's anticipated 4 inches (10 cm) of rain after several weeks with no precipitation. "Let's hope it brings us all the rain we need," said Dominican President Hipolito Mejia.
Puerto Plata International Airport was open on Wednesday morning. But Managing Director Michael Nicolaas told CNN the airport would shut down if conditions worsen.
The Bahamas began sending soldiers to several southern islands Tuesday and planned to send more to other islands Wednesday in preparation for the storm. But in the northern Bahamas, where the Nassau airport also remained open, tourists continued to enjoy the sun and sea.
South Floridians filled their shopping carts with bottled water, canned food, milk, batteries and emergency supplies.
"We have dog food. We have people food. We have long yellow coats. We have sand bags. We are now buying batteries. We have water. I think we're set," said one South Florida woman, describing her family's last-minute shopping spree.
On its track through the Caribbean, Debby brought heavy rain and flooding to Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory of 4 million people. The storm north of the island on Tuesday but rain continued on Wednesday.
Debby dumped up to 5 inches of rain in San Juan, the Puerto Rican capital. Some interior mountain areas of Puerto Rico received up to 17 inches of rain.
Debby caused little apparent damage to other Caribbean islands east of Puerto Rico, including the Virgin Islands.
Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands planned to reopen schools and government offices Wednesday, and flights were expected to resume. "We believe the conditions are adequate to return to normalcy," Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Rossello said at a news conference Tuesday evening.
In the San Juan area, a 78-year-old man died when he slipped from his roof while trying to dismantle an antenna before the storm.
The HOVENSA oil refinery on the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Croix, which cut back production Monday and Tuesday, planned to resume normal operations Wednesday.
Hurricane Debby leaves Puerto Rico, heads toward Florida
National Weather Service