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Erika's deadly winds weakened over Cuba on Saturday, losing its title of tropical storm after drenching Haiti and the Dominican Republic — but Florida officials still urged residents to be prepared.
"Erika has degenerated into a trough of low pressure," the National Hurricane Center in Miami said. For a few hours, the weather system hung on as a tropical cyclone, then was downgraded even further as it struggled to maintain strength over the Caribbean Sea.
Those in its path are not necessarily out of the woods yet, though. Erika's remnants were expected to hover over central Cuba and then target the Gulf of Mexico, possibly skirting South Florida, where it could regain strength as a tropical storm again.
Heavy rain could bog down the Florida peninsula and southeastern U.S. for several days, The Weather Channel reported. Flash flooding was a concern. The storm has the potential to rake Florida's west coast starting late Sunday or early Monday.
Amid uncertainty over the storm's path and intensity, Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency on Friday for the entire state.
On Saturday, speaking in Collier County in South Florida, where he's from, Scott said that despite dissipating, Erika still poses "some risk" as it reaches the Gulf.
"Our National Guard is still prepared to mobilize 8,000 individuals if we need it," he said. "We're still anticipating quite a bit of rain."
Scott said officials "continue to hope for the best but prepare for the worst," and urged residents who had moved to Florida since the last hurricane a decade ago — Wilma — to take this one seriously.
"Have three days of water, three days of food. Have your batteries, have your radio," he advised.
Erika has been "completely unpredictable the whole time," he added.
At least one person died in Haiti in a suspected mudslide, and four others were killed 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.
At least 20 people were killed in the aftermath of the storm as it passed over the Caribbean island country of Dominica on Friday, its prime minister said, describing the extent of the devastation as “monumental.”
In an address to the nation, Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit said many others are still missing. More than a foot of rain fell in less than 12 hours as the storm hit Wednesday. Torrents of water flowed through streets and swept away cars.
"This is a period of national tragedy," he said.
Erika's center is “still very poorly organized,” the Weather Channel said Saturday. Tropical storm warnings were canceled for Haiti, the Turks and Caicos, and the central and southeast Bahamas, but heavy rainfall was still expected in those places.
Officials in Florida said residents should prepare by filling vehicles' gas tanks and determining whether they live in an evacuation zone.
Chris Landsea, a meteorologist with the National Hurricane Center, says Erika is an “extremely disorganized storm,” which is making it difficult for forecasters to track. A hurricane is stronger, better formed and has an eyewall. Hurricanes also have a more regular motion pattern, unlike tropical storms, which can be large blobs of weather.
"For track prediction, it's actually easier to track a strong hurricane than a sloppy tropical storm like Erika," Landsea said.