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Hurricane Danny raises worry over mudslides, flooding in Caribbean

MIAMI — With Hurricane Danny growing to a Category 3 storm Friday and headed toward Caribbean islands gripped by drought, emergency officials starting preparing for the possibility of flash floods and mudslides.

"We are all on very high alerts," said Joanne Persad of the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency based in Barbados.

On Friday, Danny's winds strengthened to 115 mph as it moved westward more than 800 miles east of the Leeward Islands. National Hurricane Center forecasters expect Danny will weaken over the next two days and arrive in the Lesser Antilles on Monday as a tropical storm. Forecast tracks show Danny continuing to weaken by the time it reaches Puerto Rico on Tuesday, and Haiti and the Dominican Republic by Wednesday.

THE LATEST: See the most current updates on this storm.

But even without strong winds, Danny could remain a threat to the bone-dry islands, particularly in places such as Haiti, where storms have repeatedly unleashed fatal mudslides.

Danny also remained a compact storm, making it harder to predict. Forecasters said hurricane winds extend just 15 miles. Smaller storms tend to intensify and weaken rapidly, sometimes faster than models can calculate.

Hurricane hunter planes that flew over Danny on Friday again are scheduled to investigate the storm Saturday afternoon.

Across the Caribbean, meteorologists and emergency management officials say they are monitoring the storm even as its path remains uncertain.

"It's a concern for us. It's been really, really dry," said Rosalina Vazquez, a meteorologist technician at the National Weather Service in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where one of the worst droughts in the island's history has left it parched.

Danny was expected to arrive in Puerto Rico, likely weakened to a tropical storm, Vazquez said.

Depending on the amount of rainfall, the west part of the island could see some flash floods with the more populated east side experiencing prolonged flooding. But on Friday, Vazquez said it was still too early to call.

"The path could bring a good amount of rainfall," she said. "We are monitoring the system."

The public should remain alert, she added, but not panic.

In Haiti, the Office of Civil Protection issued a statement on its Facebook page saying the storm's current location poses no threat to the country. But officials spent the day in meetings to discuss preparations and evaluate supplies. Parts of the country also have been experiencing a severe drought, raising concerns about flash flooding. And with the country's denuded forests, it doesn't take much rain to trigger mudslides that in the past have left dozens dead and houses toppled.

At least one airline company, LIAT, canceled flights to and from several Eastern Caribbean countries beginning Sunday because of Danny. American Airlines, which also travels to the region, said it was monitoring the situation.

Persad said the drought in some eastern Caribbean nations "is factoring tremendously in our pre-planning. Given the drought, you can have flash floods and landslides."

© 2015 Miami Herald