ORLANDO, Fla. — Isaias downgraded to tropical storm strength Saturday afternoon but it's wind strength is expected to rise again into a hurricane as it approaches southeast Florida, according to the National Hurricane Center's 5 p.m. ET update.
New NHC models are showing a slight westerly wobble in Isaias' path with projections indicating it making landfall along the east-central Florida coast sometime Sunday.
The storm's tropical force winds are expected to reach the southeast coast of Florida Saturday night. Isaias' center was 115 miles away from Fort Lauderdale at the time of the 5 p.m. update. After having its strength drained during a pass through the Bahamas, Isaias is expected to draw strength upon arriving in warmer waters from the Gulf Stream near the Straits of Florida.
Isaias maximum sustained winds fell to 70 mph, and had its forward motion slow down to 10 mph as it continued moving northwest, according to the NHC's latest advisory on Saturday.
A hurricane warning was issued by the NHC for all coastal communities from Boca Raton to the Volusia-Flagler county line. The latest projections show the storm arriving at the Treasure Coast by Saturday evening.
A storm-surge watch was issued from the Jupiter Inlet to Ponte Vedra Beach. A tropical storm watch was extended northward from Altamaha Sound Georgia to South Santee River South Carolina.
Orange County is under a tropical storm warning, and Brevard County was issued a hurricane warning by the National Weather Service on Saturday morning. Communities between the Volusia-Flagler county line and Ponte Vedra Beach are also under a tropical storm warning.
"The global and regional models have come into much better agreement compared to 24 hours ago in taking Isaias northwestward slowly for the next 36 hours or so, and moving the center near or keeping it just offshore the east Central Florida coast," the latest advisory stated.
Isaias was last located about 95 miles south of Freeport on Grand Bahama Island and 115 miles southeast of Fort Lauderdale.
The storm is expected to regain its strength Saturday night due to a combination of warm Gulf stream waters and land interaction with Florida, causing deep convection over its center, the NHC said.
Forecasters then expect Isaias to move near the east coast of the Florida peninsula late Saturday through Sunday.
Models show tropical storm force winds, which extend 115 miles away from Isaias' core, could be felt in the Florida Keys by 8 p.m. Saturday evening, said NHC director Ken Graham.
Tropical storm winds range in strength between 45 and 73 mph. Graham's message to Floridians was hopeful during a 9 a.m. Facebook video, but urged residents to take the storm seriously.
"When you have tropical storm force winds, it's just too dangerous to be outside," Graham said.
Hurricane-force winds lost some reach, now extending 25 miles away from Isaias' center.
While the storm is forecast to strengthen, Isaias should weaken again upon encountering vertical wind sheer Monday evening as it moves up the Georgia coast and into the southern mid-Atlantic states where it is predicted to become an extratropical cyclone, the NHC said.
The forecast track sticks the center of the storm about 50 miles off the coast of Port St. Lucie at 2 a.m. Sunday with projected sustained winds of 75 mph and higher gusts at its closest approach to Florida.
It's then expected to skirt the coast east of Brevard and Volusia counties during the day Sunday before turning back to the northeast and taking aim at North Carolina's Outer Banks by 2 a.m. Tuesday.
Florida's east coast, from Ocean Reef in Key Largo to Sebastian Inlet at the Brevard County-Indian River County border, remains under a tropical storm watch along with Lake Okeechobee.
The NHC forecast 2 to 4 inches of rain with some pockets of up to 6 inches in South Florida and east Central Florida on Sunday that could result in flash flooding in urban areas with poor drainage. Surf conditions are expected to grow by Saturday with dangerous rip conditions.
Hurricane Isaias snapped trees and brought down heavy sheets of rain throughout the Bahamas, which is still recovering from the devastation brought less then a year ago from Category 5 Hurricane Dorian.
So far, little damage has been reported from the archipelago nation near as destructive as the 2019 September storm. The loss of power from four substations was reported in New Providence, according to the Bahamas Power and Light Company Ltd.
A time frame for power restoration hasn't been offered. Advance teams are out in New Providence assessing the situation at this time.
Multiple Instagram users took to their platform and uploaded videos of gusty winds and tumultuous waves, but damages have been otherwise not catastrophic outside of fallen debris, according to early reports.
A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hurricane hunter aircraft departed from Lakeland Linder International Airport at 4:30 a.m. to take readings of Isaias' center as it moved toward Andros Island. The team found that Isaias' center of circulation wasn't tight and remained open on its west side, according to Ashley Lundry, flight director with the NOAA hurricane hunters.
"We never saw a closed eye on the aircraft tail or belly radar, only about 50%. We encountered the most turbulence on the northeast side of the storm and also flew around a good amount of convection on the east side of the storm," Lundry said.
Isaias was moving north of the Bahamas, and the Doppler radar indicated tropical-storm-force winds were detected just offshore Broward and Miami-Dade Counties, as of the 2 p.m. update.
At a Saturday-morning news conference, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis urged preparedness and advised Floridians to have seven days' worth of food, water and medicine on hand. The governor declared a state of emergency Friday for all of Florida's east coast counties from Miami-Dade to Nassau ahead of Isaias' arrival.
"The most important thing we want people to do now is stay vigilant," DeSantis said Saturday.
The governor also announced his request for federal assistance had been approved by President Donald Trump.
"The response to Hurricane Isaias comes after five consecutive hurricane seasons in which the State has been impacted by multiple million, and in some cases, multiple billion-dollar storms, all while in the midst of the largest disaster event managed by FEMA and the State of Florida, the COVID-19 Pandemic/Public Health Emergency," DeSantis wrote to the president.
The approval means the Federal Emergency Management Agency will provide reimbursement for expenses related to weathering the storm.
Meteorologists are monitoring Isaias as any slight western adjustment of its path could dramatically vary the storm's impact on Sunshine State, said FOX-35 meteorologist Jayme King.
"Any westerly wobble will bring these gusts further inland," King said. "Remain prepared."
Although Isaias has gained strength, it faces environmental factors that should prevent it from getting stronger as it moves toward Florida, the NHC said.
"The hurricane is currently undergoing about 25 knots of westerly vertical shear, and some mid-level dry air is present west of the center. This combination should prevent any more intensification, and, while Isaias is expected to remain a hurricane as it passes near the Florida coast, at least slight weakening should occur during this time," according to the NHC.
The Saharan dust in the area also should help reduce the intensity of the storm, FOX 35 chief meteorologist Glenn Richards said Friday. Some beach erosion along the Volusia and Brevard coasts is possible, he said.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
Current projections show Isaias losing strength over the next 48 hours, and should see its maximum sustained winds fall to 75 mph. The storm is expected to be post-tropical by Wednesday as it moves up the northeast coast.
However, for this weekend the Metro Orlando area could see wind gusts of 40 mph and heavy rains with some localized flooding in low-lying areas on Sunday, according to John Pendergrast, meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
The area could see 3 to 4 inches of rain with up to 5 inches along coastal areas like Brevard and Volusia counties, Pendergrast said.
AN ENIGMA OF A STORM
Isaias has been somewhat of an enigma of a storm thus far for meteorologists trying to predict its development.
Forecasters expected the ninth storm of the year to form Tuesday night, but instead saw winds rise to tropical-storm force strength without a well-defined center of circulation. The large storm, over 500 miles wide, had a broad and elongated center of circulation; without tightened organization, Isaias remained only a "potential cyclone" until late Wednesday.
Meanwhile, there are two more developing systems being monitored by the National Hurricane Center If either one becomes a named storm, it would be Tropical Storm Josephine.
The 2020 hurricane season already has seen seven tropical storms: Arthur, Bertha, Cristobal, Dolly, Edouard, Fay, Gonzalo, plus Hurricane Hanna, which hit Texas over the weekend, and now Isaias. The next named storms would be Josephine, Kyle, Laura, Marco, Nana, Omar, Paulette, Rene, Sally, Teddy, Vicky and Wilfred.
Orlando Sentinel staff reporters Paola Perez and Matthew J. Palm contributed to this story.
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