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Tropical Storm Erika weakens, shift west

Devastating rains likely to be Erika's most formidable threat even if the storm breaks up before reaching Florida

By Scott T. Smith and Danielle Haynes
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Tropical Storm Erika weakens, shift west

MIAMI, Aug. 28 (UPI) -- Tropical Storm Erika brought heavy rains to Puerto Rico and Hispaniola Friday as it shifted further west, taking aim for Florida's Gulf coast on Monday.

Forecasters say Erika remains disorganized but still packs strong winds and heavy rains. Because of strong wind shear and the disruption it will face when crossing Hispaniola's mountains, National Hurricane Center says Erika will likely degrade into a tropical depression then increase in strength to a tropical storm before hitting Florida early Monday morning.

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Regardless of Erika's future, it devastating rains are likely to continue into Florida. An airport on the Caribbean island of Dominica recorded more than 12 inches of rain from the storm. Mudslides and flooding there have killed at least 20 people.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Friday morning declared a state of emergency across all counties ahead of the storm. On Thursday he urged residents to "Get ready." Erika is currently forecast to make landfall in Florida as a strong tropical storm.

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On Friday afternoon, the Coast Guard ordered port condition X-ray for several ports in Florida. Vessels and terminal operators in the area were told to take extra precautions in preparation for the possibility of gale force winds within 48 hours.

NHC forecasters have had trouble predicting Erika's future because of strong wind shear that is expected to continue through Saturday as the storm crosses Hispaniola's mountains. Despite the obstacles, the storm has maintained sustained winds of 50 mph with a Hurricane Hunter aircraft recorded still higher winds Friday morning in one section of the storm.

Erika is forecast to track between Cuba and the Bahamas, where it will face more favorable conditions for strengthening Saturday and Sunday. Its expected track shifted to the west Friday morning, having it cross over the Florida Keys and move up the state's southwest Gulf coast Monday morning with winds of 60 mph.

RELATED Tropical Storm Erika kills four in Dominica

Tropical storm warnings were in effect in the entire island of Hispaniola and the southern Bahamas. Tropical storm watch is in eastern Cuba and the northern Bahamas.

Authorities in Puerto Rico closed some roads in anticipation of up to 12 inches of rain, which could bring dangerous flash floods or landslides.

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Amy R. Connolly contributed to this report

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