Erika dissipates after killing at least 20 in Caribbean

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HAVANA — Tropical Storm Erika dissipated early Saturday, even as its remnants began drenching parts of eastern Cuba. But it left devastation in its path, killing at least 20 people and leaving another 31 missing on the small eastern Caribbean island of Dominica, authorities said.

In Haiti, one person died in a mudslide just north of Port-au-Prince, and at least four others were killed in a traffic accident that apparently occurred in the rain.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said the storm had degenerated into a trough of low pressure by early Saturday after mountains and an unfavorable environment in Hispaniola knocked  Erika below tropical storm force.

The eastern Cuban city of Santiago was hit by about two hours of heavy rain Saturday morning as the storm was falling apart. Residents reported no flooding or other damage, saying they wished it would rain more to help alleviate a months-long drought that has hit eastern Cuba particularly hard.

“It’s a little cloudy, there’s some wind, but not very strong. But I wish it would keep raining to fill up the reservoirs, because we really need it,” said Jorge Barrera, a 56-year-old mechanical engineer.

Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit said in a televised address late Friday that damage inflicted by the storm set that island back 20 years. Some 15 inches (38 centimeters) of rain fell on the mountainous island.

“The extent of the devastation is monumental. It is far worse than expected,” he said, adding that hundreds of homes, bridges and roads have been destroyed. “We have, in essence, to rebuild Dominica.”

At least 31 people have been reported missing, according to officials with the Barbados-based Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency. The island’s airports remained closed, and some communities remained isolated by flooding and landslides.

Skerrit asked people to share their resources with each other as foreign aid trickled in.

“This is a period of national tragedy,” he said. “Floods swamped villages, destroyed homes and wiped out roads. Some communities are no longer recognizable.”

Before dissipating, Erika knocked out power to more than 200,000 people in Puerto Rico and caused more than $16 million in damage to crops there, including plantains, bananas and coffee.

In Haiti, authorities evacuated 254 prisoners in Gonaives to other locations because of flooding, and two people were hospitalized after their home in Port-au-Prince collapsed in heavy rains.

Four people died and another 11 were hospitalized in Leogane, just west of the Haitian capital, when a truck carrying a liquor known locally as clairin crashed into a bus and exploded. Authorities said it apparently was raining when the accident occurred.

While the storm was stumbling over the Dominican Republic and Haiti, John Cagialosi, a hurricane specialist at the center, warned that people in Florida should still brace for heavy rain, said “This is a potentially heavy rain event for a large part of the state,” he said.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott earlier declared a state of emergency for the entire state and officials urged residents to fill gas tanks and stockpile food and water.

Erika was a particularly wet storm, and had been moving across a region that has been struggling with drought.

Given how dry Puerto Rico and parts of Florida have been, “it could be a net benefit, this thing,” said MIT meteorology professor Kerry Emanuel.

At 9:30 EDT, the remnants of Erika were located about 130 miles (205 kilometers) east of Camaguey, Cuba, and were moving west-northwest near 22 mph (35 kph) in a general motion expected to continue into the evening, the Hurricane Center said. The storm’s maximum sustained winds were near 35 mph (55 kph).

The Hurricane Center said Erika’s remnants were expected to move near the coast of eastern and central Cuba on Saturday and into the southeastern Gulf of Mexico on Sunday. It said it was cancelling future public advisories

Meanwhile in the Pacific, Jimena turned into a powerful Category 3 hurricane with maximum sustained winds near 125 mph (205 kph), and the Hurricane Center said it was likely to be near Category 5 status soon, though it did not pose an immediate threat to land.