MIAMI — Hurricane Isaias is expected to strengthen from a Category 1 to a Category 2 hurricane as it crosses over the Bahamas Friday and Saturday, lashing the still-recovering islands with up to 100 mph sustained winds.
According to the National Hurricane Center's 8 a.m. update, Isaias is about 340 miles southeast of Nassau and maintaining 80 mph winds.
Southeast Florida from Ocean Reef north to the Sebastian Inlet and Lake Okeechobee remain under tropical storm watches, and the hurricane center predicted South Florida could see several inches of rain and tropical-storm-force winds over the weekend.
Forecasters have been uncertain about Isaias' track and intensity, which is harder to predict, from the beginning. Thursday night, the forecast rapidly shifted from expecting a weak Category 1 by Saturday morning to a powerful Category 2.
Forecasters said some of that strengthening comes from the warm waters near the Bahamas, which are running three to four degrees above normal. Higher sea surface temperatures are one of the main ways climate change is affecting hurricane formation, and the record-setting heat seen in this region over the summer is one of the reasons scientists predicted this would be an active hurricane season.
The expected path has also flip-flopped across Florida's coasts and the Bahamas several times this week, although models generally seem in consensus that Isaias' path will take it between Florida and the Bahamas next.
"Some strengthening is possible today, and Isaias is expected to remain a hurricane for the next few days," and while there appears to still be some "uncertainty" in the storm's track, there is a "notable chance of a hurricane moving close to the U.S. East coast, so the forecast continues to show that scenario," forecasters wrote in the advisory.
According to the National Weather Service, the strongest winds in Florida will be felt from Pompano Beach to Palm Bay, where there's potential for winds from 58 mph to 73 mph. Miami-Dade and most of Broward are predicted to see winds from 39 mph to 57 mph.
Homestead to West Palm Beach could see about a foot of storm surge, and Homestead to Melbourne could see flooding rain. The hurricane center predicted that South Florida to east Central Florida could see two to four inches of rain, with some spots seeing six inches.
Miami-Dade County said Thursday it had everything prepared to open 20 hurricane shelters, but it does not plan on opening any, so far avoiding a test of the county's planned provisions to enforce social distancing and screen for the coronavirus at shelters.
The county also announced that all facilities operated by the Miami-Dade County Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces Department, including beaches and parks, will close by 8 p.m. Friday in preparation for the storm. State-supported COVID-19 testing sites across Florida will also be closed at least until Tuesday morning.
The Bahamas is the first region to issue a hurricane warning for Isaias. Hurricane warnings were issued for the northwestern Bahamas, which includes the Abacos Islands, Grand Bahamas Island and Andros Island; the northwestern Bahamas including Andros Island, New Providence, Eleuthera, Abacos Islands, Berry Islands, Grand Bahamas Island, and Bimini; the southeastern Bahamas including the Acklins, Crooked Island, Long Cay, the Inaguas, Mayaguana, and the Ragged Islands; and the central Bahamas, including Cat Island, the Exumas, Long Island, Rum Cay, and San Salvador.
Tropical storm warnings are still in effect for the Dominican Republic's entire southern and northern coastlines. Warnings are also in effect for the Turks and Caicos Islands.
Tropical storm watches are in effect for the northwestern Bahamas including Andros Island, New Providence, Eleuthera, Abacos Islands, Berry Islands, Grand Bahamas Island and Bimini.
Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis asked Bahamians to take the approaching storm seriously and again urged them "to prepare for the worse just in case."
All government offices will close at noon Friday to allow people to prepare for the storm, Minnis announced. He also said this weekend's COVID-19 lockdown, put in place to try and stem the tide of rising coronavirus cases, will be relaxed to allow people to prepare for the storm. The hours of supermarkets and other stores will be extended and individuals will be allowed to move around.
Effective Friday, a curfew will be in place from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. until further notice.
Based on current indicators and data provided, a lockdown will still be necessary following the passage of this storm, Minnis said. "Much stronger protective and mitigation measures are absolutely necessary and will have to be implemented," he said.
He also told Bahamians that the country remains in the midst of a pandemic and if they do not act responsibly, the consequences could be dire. He begged them not to use the storm to go "socializing" and meeting with friends and family.
"The situation we are in is very fast-moving and fluid," he said.
Minnis also appealed to the country's youth, who have been booking reservations at local hotels to wait out the hurricane. Minnis asked them not to engage in COVID-19 or hurricane parties.
"Use that time for security and safety, please. Do not engage in a hurricane or COVID party. It will not help us and it can be devastating. We will see the after-effects, if not in two weeks, possibly later," Minnis said.
While the Bahamas is still recovering from the devastating effects of last year's Hurricane Dorian, which slammed the islands of Grand Bahama and the Abacos, it is also dealing with a surge in coronavirus cases after fully reopening its borders on July 1. The surge first led to announcing a travel ban for U.S. travelers. It has since amended it by saying all visitors are welcomed but will need to quarantine — at their own expense — in a government facility for 14 days and take a COVID-19 test before being discharged.