CASTRIES, St. Lucia - St. Lucia shuttered schools and prepared to close the island's two airports while urging residents to finish preparations for the approach of strengthening Tropical Storm Chantal as it raced Monday toward the small islands of the Lesser Antilles.
The fast-moving storm's maximum sustained winds were near 50 mph Monday night with some strengthening expected over the next two days. Chantal was centered about 235 miles east-southeast of Barbados and was moving west-northwest at 26 mph.
The center of the tropical storm was expected to churn over the Atlantic and reach the small islands on the eastern rim of the Caribbean early Tuesday and then move into the Caribbean Sea, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami.
Chantal could be near hurricane strength on Wednesday before it reaches Hispaniola, the island shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Both countries are very vulnerable to flooding and landslides from storms, but widespread deforestation and ramshackle housing in Haiti mean even moderate rains pose a significant threat.
U.S. forecasters expect that wind shear and interaction with the mountains of Hispaniola and Cuba will cause Chantal to start weakening in about three days and it is expected to be a tropical depression Friday while over the Bahamas.
In St. Lucia's capital of Castries, supermarkets stayed open late on Monday as islanders stocked up on emergency supplies including water and batteries.
The government was taking no chances earlier in the day, ordering a midday closure of all schools until Wednesday. The director of the local meteorological office warned that parts of the island could potentially be impacted by landslides and flooding.
In a national address Monday evening, Prime Minister Kenny Anthony urged people to hunker down at home until the tropical storm had passed.
A tropical storm warning was issued for St. Lucia, Barbados, Dominica, Puerto Rico and the French islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe. A tropical storm watch was in effect for St. Vincent, the U.S. Virgin Islands and parts of the southern coast of the Dominican Republic.
In Barbados, officials urged people to stay tuned to radio stations and prepare for the rapid approach of Chantal, the Atlantic season's third named storm.
"This is hurricane season so we urge Barbadians to be prepared," said Kerry Hinds, deputy director of the island's emergency management department.
In Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the U.S. Coast Guard urged all waterfront facilities to remove unsecured debris, hazardous material and pollutants from dockside areas. Pleasure craft operations were advised to seek safe harbor and secure their craft.
The storm was expected to produce rain and strong winds in Puerto Rico, with gusts of up to 60 mph in southern and mountainous areas, ac cording to Roberto Garcia, director of the National Weather Service on the island of less than 4 million inhabitants. Chantal was expected to pass more than 100 miles south of Puerto Rico early Wednesday.
Meanwhile in the Pacific, Tropical Storm Erick weakened into a depression as it passed close to the southern portion of Mexico's Baja California peninsula. It is forecast to move away from the coast on Tuesday and is not expected to make landfall.
Erick's maximum sustained winds are near 35 mph with gradual weakening expected over the next 36 hours.