Tropical Storm Erika lashed Puerto Rico with rain and wind Friday after killing at least four people and causing devastating floods and mudslides in the eastern Caribbean island of Dominica, where authorities said about 20 people were still missing.
The storm was expected to dump up to 8 inches of rain across the drought-stricken northern Caribbean as it headed toward the Bahamas and the U.S.
Forecasters no longer expected it would strike Florida as a hurricane but still considered it likely that it would reach the state as a tropical storm starting late Sunday, said Chris Landsea, a meteorologist with the National Hurricane Center in Miami. It was also considered possible that the storm would dissipate as it passes over the mountains of Hispaniola, the island that includes the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
"It is unlikely at this point to become a hurricane," Landsea said. "The main threat will be rainfall. You've seen some horrific rainfall in the Caribbean with what happened in Dominica."
Authorities in the Dominican Republic prepared for Erika's arrival on Friday, including the popular tourist areas of Punta Cana, Samana and Puerto Plata. Meanwhile, rescue crews in Dominica continued to search for missing and injured people after the storm dropped 15 inches (38 centimeters) of rain as it passed over the island.
Assistance Police Superintendent Claude Weekes said Friday by phone that authorities still haven't been able to access many areas in the mountainous island because of impassable roads and bridges.
"The aftermath is loads of damage," he said. "It really has been devastating."
Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit urged citizens of the country to help clear streets strewn with mud and toppled trees following the passage of the storm. Authorities were still assessing damage and were unable to reach some areas in the southeast of the island.
Erika caused rivers to overflow and roads and bridges to collapse on the island. An elderly blind man and two children were killed when a mudslide engulfed their home in the southeast. Another man was found dead in the capital following a mudslide at his home but the cause of death could not immediately be determined, said Police Chief Daniel Carbon.
Authorities said that approximately 20 people were missing and the number of confirmed deaths could rise.
People on the island told of narrowly escaping being engulfed by water as Erika downed trees and power lines as it unleashed heavy floods that swept cars down streets and ripped scaffolding off some buildings.
"I was preparing to go to work when all of a sudden I heard this loud noise and saw the place flooded with water," said Shanie James, a 30-year-old mother who works at a bakery. "We had to run for survival."
Mudslides also destroyed dozens of homes across Dominica, including that of 46-year-old security guard Peter Julian, who had joined friends after leaving work.
"When I returned, I saw that my house that I have lived in for over 20 years was gone," he said. "I am blessed to be alive. God was not ready for me ... I have lost everything and now have to start all over again."
In Puerto Rico, the storm knocked out power to more than 200,000 people and toppled trees but there were no immediate reports of casualties. Schools and government offices in the U.S. territory remained closed Friday.