Tropical Storm Erika breaks up over the Caribbean, downgraded to tropical rainstorm

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SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic – Tropical Storm Erika was losing its punch, apparently dissipating even as it drenched Haiti and the Dominican Republic early Saturday. But it left devastation in its path, killing at least 20 people and leaving another 31 missing on the small eastern Caribbean island of Dominica, authorities said.

Another four people died in Haiti in a traffic accident that apparently occurred in the rain.

Mountains and an unfavorable environment would likely knock Erika below tropical storm force, though there had been a small chance it could recover as it moved along Cuba and then approached Florida late Sunday. By early Saturday, the center said the storm appeared to be dissipating.

Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit said in a televised address late Friday that damage inflicted by the storm set the island back 20 years. Some 15 inches (38 centimeters) of rain fell on the mountainous island.

“The extent of the devastation is monumental. It is far worse than expected,” he said, adding that hundreds of homes, bridges and roads have been destroyed. “We have, in essence, to rebuild Dominica.”

At least 31 people have been reported missing, according to officials with the Barbados-based Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency.

The island’s airports remained closed, and some communities remained isolated by flooding and landslides.

Skerrit asked people to share their resources with each other as foreign aid trickled in.

“This is a period of national tragedy,” he said. “Floods swamped villages, destroyed homes and wiped out roads. Some communities are no longer recognizable.”

Erika still carried enough force to knock out power to more than 200,000 people in Puerto Rico and cause more than $16 million in damage to crops there, including plantains, bananas and coffee.

In Haiti, authorities evacuated 254 prisoners in Gonaives to other locations because of flooding, and two people were hospitalized after their home in Port-au-Prince collapsed in heavy rains.

Four people died 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.

Mudslides were blocking some roads north of Port-au-Prince, according to reports.

While the storm was stumbling over the Dominican Republic and Haiti, John Cagialosi, a hurricane specialist at the center, warned that people in Florida should still brace for heavy rain, said “This is a potentially heavy rain event for a large part of the state,” he said.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for the entire state and officials urged residents to fill gas tanks and stockpile food and water.

Erika is a particularly wet storm, and it is moving across a region that has been struggling with drought.

Given how weak the storm now is and how dry Puerto Rico and parts of Florida have been, “it could be a net benefit, this thing,” said MIT meteorology professor Kerry Emanuel.

The center of Erika was located about 55 miles (90 kilometers) east-northeast of Holguin, Cuba, and was moving west-northwest near 20 mph (31 kph) in a general motion expected to continue into the evening, the Hurricane Center said Saturday morning. The storm’s maximum sustained winds were near 40 mph (65 kph).

Meanwhile in the Pacific, Jimena turned into a powerful Category 3 hurricane with maximum sustained winds near 125 mph (205 kph), and the Hurricane Center said it was likely to be near Category 5 status soon, though it did not pose an immediate threat to land.