Storm clouds are seen over Miami as Hurricane Isaias approaches

Miami (AFP) - Hurricane Isaias dumped torrential rain on the Bahamas Saturday as it rumbled toward Florida – the first big test for the storm-prone US state reeling from the coronavirus crisis.

The deadly category one storm was expected to unleash up to eight inches (20 centimeters) of rain on the islands before directing its fury at the United States.

As of 2 pm (1800 GMT), Isaias was packing maximum sustained winds of up to 75 miles (120 kilometers) an hour, and was emerging over the Straits of Florida between the Florida Keys and Cuba.

Isaias is expected to regain some strength before approaching the southeastern Florida coast early Sunday, said the Miami-based National Hurricane Center.

The area was already receiving gusty showers late Saturday afternoon, and President Donald Trump declared an emergency ahead of the hurricane’s arrival to free up federal funds.

“The latest projections have Isaias coming very close to the east coast of Florida as a category one hurricane later this evening and into tomorrow,” Governor Ron DeSantis said.

“The most important thing we want people to do now is remain vigilant.”

NASA was carefully tracking the storm. The space agency was monitoring whether the SpaceX Crew Dragon could safely bring its two astronauts back from the International Space Station for a splashdown Sunday in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Hurricane conditions are expected along portions of the Florida east coast late Saturday,” the NHC said, adding a “dangerous storm surge” of up to four feet was possible in some areas.

A woman prepares sand bags for the residents of Palmetto Bay near Miami as Florida prepares for the impact of Hurricane Isaias

In the Bahamas, the deputy director of the country’s meteorology department, Jeffrey Simmons, told The Nassau Guardian “the worst part” of the storm came to New Providence, the most populous island, early Saturday.

It is the archipelago’s first hurricane since Dorian, a category five storm last year that devastated two islands, pummeling them for three days.

- ‘Very much in flux’ -

Florida residents rushed to stock up on essentials as Isaias – the ninth named storm of the Atlantic season and the second hurricane – began to be felt on the southeastern coast.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis says his state is prepared for the arrival of Hurricane Isaias

The storm’s slight turn offshore may spare the state the worst.

“This stuff is all very much in flux,” DeSantis said.

Jason Woodall, 44, was boarding up the Miami Beach store where he works, while others nearby piled sand bags.

“You always got to be prepared, just in case, because you never know,” he said. “It could always strengthen.

“Remember a couple of years ago? It stopped right outside, then spun and gained a huge amount of strength,” he said, referring to Hurricane Michael, a powerful category five storm that struck the area in 2018.

While DeSantis did not expect many storm-based evacuations – which would be difficult given that shelters are usually crowded and social distancing would be hard – he said hospitals could be forced to move some patients, depending on power outages and flash flooding.

Isaias is seen as a major test for emergency systems in Florida, one of the US states hardest hit by the coronavirus crisis.

Only California, with almost double Florida’s population of about 21 million people, has registered more cases.

On Saturday, Florida reported another 179 deaths, setting a new state record and pushing its virus death toll to 6,843.

Florida’s coronavirus testing centers were closed Thursday and will not reopen until they get the all-clear after the storm.

The state’s emergency management division explained that the testing centers are housed in tents and could not withstand the high winds.

Locals in Hato Mayor in the Dominican Republic try to recover their belongings after the Magua river overflowed as a result of Isaias

Isaias left a shambles in Puerto Rico, downing trees and electric lines and inundating houses as it cut a path through the island on Thursday.

Authorities there said Saturday they had recovered the body of a 56-year-old woman whose car had been swept away by storm waters.

And in the Dominican Republic, locals were cleaning up after the Magua river broke its banks.