Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic brace for heavy rains as Tropical Storm Bertha approaches



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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Tropical Storm Bertha spun toward Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic early Saturday after dumping heavy rain across the eastern Caribbean and causing several power outages in the region.

The storm had maximum sustained winds of 50 mph (85 kph), and no significant change in strength was expected over the next two days as Bertha followed a path taking it near Puerto Rico and possibly skirting over the Dominican Republic before heading for the Bahamas, the National Hurricane Center in Miami said. The storm was centered 275 miles (445 kilometers) southeast of San Juan and moving to the west-northwest at 22 mph (35 kph) late Friday.

Tropical storm warnings were issued for Puerto Rico and the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. A tropical storm watch was in effect for the eastern Dominican Republic, the southeastern Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos islands.

Officials in Puerto Rico have said the island needs rain to help alleviate a moderate drought that has hit the U.S. territory's southern region and a small portion in the northeast. More than half of the island is experiencing abnormally dry conditions, with the government reporting $20 million in crop losses.

"We expect a lot of rain," said Ernesto Morales at the National Weather Service. "It's very hard to say whether it will rain over water or land. We hope it's over land."

The government plans to implement strict water rationing starting Wednesday if Bertha doesn't bring enough rain. Under the plan, hundreds of thousands of people in and around the capital of San Juan would get water only every other day.

Puerto Rico saw less than an inch of rain in June, compared with the month's average of more than 4 inches. July saw more rain, but the 3.40 inches (8.64 centimeters) that fell was still down from the average of 4.76 inches (12 centimeters).

Morales said the storm was moving quickly and its effects would be felt in Puerto Rico starting at midmorning Saturday, with the storm expected to pass near Puerto Rico's southwestern region in early afternoon.

Forecasters said the storm could drop as much as 3 to 5 inches (8-13 centimeters) of rain on Puerto Rico, with some isolated areas possibly getting as much as 8 inches (20 centimeters).

Authorities closed El Yunque rainforest, a popular tourist attraction in northeastern Puerto Rico. Officials said they planned to cancel ferry trips to the popular neighboring islands of Vieques and Culebra.

The U.S. Coast Guard said all ports in Puerto Rico's east and south as well as those in the U.S. Virgin Islands would be closed.

On Friday, the storm caused power outages in the French Caribbean territory of Martinique but no injuries or serious damage had been reported, government spokeswoman Audrey Hamann said. She said in a phone interview that authorities were trying to restore electricity to about 150,000 homes.

The Antigua-based regional airline LIAT canceled several flights in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, St. Lucia and Dominica.

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