On Tuesday morning, the National Hurricane Center issued a forecast with words nobody on Puerto Rico wants to see: hurricane watch.
Tropical Storm Dorian ripped across Barbados and the Eastern Antilles islands on Monday night and emerged on the other side with winds around 50 mph. The storm is expected to strengthen as it churns into the Caribbean and could clip Puerto Rico on Wednesday night. If it does reach the island, it would be the first hurricane or tropical storm to hit Puerto Rico since deadly Hurricane Maria in 2017.
The National Hurricane Center (NHC) hurricane watches encompass the entire island of Puerto Rico as well as eastern portion of the Dominican Republic from Isla Saona to Samana. Those are the first hurricane watches issued for Puerto Rico since Maria. In addition, the agency has also issued tropical storm warnings, also a first since Maria. All this means that the islands should start preparing for some form of tropical weather impact in the next 36-48 hours, though of what flavor remains to be seen.
The biggest question mark for Dorian is what happens in the eastern Caribbean. The sea surface temperatures are a degree or two above normal for this time of year and more than toasty enough to provide support for Dorian. However, the eastern Caribbean is normally the place where tropical storms and hurricanes go to die (seriously, forecasters call it the “hurricane graveyard”) due to prevailing winds criss crossing the upper atmosphere that can rip storms apart. John Morales, the chief meteorologist for NBC-6 Miami, told Earther that “Dorian is seriously struggling today.”
The storm’s edges appear ragged on satellite image and there’s no defined eye, both signs it’s battling through some tough conditions. Nevertheless, NHC is forecasting a “slow strengthening” over the next two days and that “Dorian is forecast to be near hurricane strength when it moves close to Puerto Rico and eastern Hispaniola.” It’s expected to drop up to 6 inches of rainfall on the island.
While the storm will be nowhere close to as powerful as Maria, Dorian could pose the first tropical cyclone test to Puerto Rico since September 2017. Maria crippled to the island’s entire grid was knocked out when the Category 4 storm made landfall. The storm and failed government response also resulted in nearly 3,000 excess deaths on the island.
In the intervening years, there’s been political and economic tumult. Many Puerto Ricans moved to the U.S. mainland. Recovery has been slow, and the grid could well go down in the face of another storm. And most recently, a massive corruption scandal engulfed a number of high level government officials in recent months. That included Governor Ricardo Rosello who resigned in July in the face of massive street protests. In short, this is already a trying time in Puerto Rico and introducing Dorian to the mix is bad news.
“Dorian is a serious concern only because of the fragile nature in which the island’s infrastructure remains in,” Morales said in a Twitter DM. “The electric grid was restored but generally not improved upon. Even if Dorian weakened to a tropical depression before its closest point of approach it would still be a concern. And there are thousands of people still living with blue tarps on their roofs because they don’t have the resources to be able to fix them.”
The island’s closest brush with tropical weather over the past two years was itty bitty Hurricane Beryl in July 2018, which formed in the Atlantic and withered in the hurricane graveyard. Its remnants dropped a few inches of rain on the island, but still raised concerns about Puerto Rico’s fragile infrastructure. Dorian in comparison is much bigger and has more of a fighting chance to clear the hurricane graveyard as some kind of tropical system, posing an unwanted test for Puerto Rico’s resilience.