By Alex Sosnowski, AccuWeather
One day after becoming the first hurricane of the 2021 Atlantic season, Elsa weakened back into a tropical storm Saturday as it zeroed in on western Haiti. Conditions in these areas were already deteriorating due to the storm’s strong winds, heavy rain and inundating storm surge.
The storm underwent rapid intensification one day earlier, becoming a hurricane early Friday morning as it raced toward the Caribbean Islands. Within 24 hours, Elsa went from tropical-storm strength with 40-mph winds to a Category 1 hurricane with 75-mph winds. By its maximum-sustained winds increasing by at least 35 mph within 24 hours, the storm’s strengthening just met the criteria set by the National Hurricane Center qualifying as “rapid intensification.”
AccuWeather forecasters are now keeping a close eye on the tropical system as it is expected to approach the United States after moving through the Caribbean through the weekend.
Elsa was about 175 miles southeast of Montego Bay, Jamaica, packing sustained winds of 65 mph and moving quickly toward the west-northwest at 17 mph at 8 p.m. EDT on Saturday. Tropical-storm-force winds extended out up to 125 miles out from its center. A category 1 hurricane has maximum-sustained winds starting at 74 mph.
The storm weakened on Saturday after peaking in strength on Friday, when its maximum-sustained winds were around 85 mph during the afternoon and evening hours. But the storm has also already been blamed for widespread damage and power outages, including in the islands of Barbados and St. Vincent.
One death was reported in Soufriere, St. Lucia, according to the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency. About 30% of customers on the island were without power on Saturday due to damaged power lines. Two other deaths were reported in the Dominican Republic, according to the director for the Dominican Republic’s center for emergency operations.
Elsa ripped roofs off homes, toppled trees and caused flooding in Barbados before introducing heavy rain and wind in St. Vincent Friday, Reuters reported. Many power outages were also blamed on Elsa.
As the storm tore through Barbados, Wilfred A. Abrahams, the island’s Minister of Home Affairs Information and Public Affairs, urged residents of the island nation to shelter in place, adding that folks should only leave their homes if the structures are damaged. Authorities in Haiti urged people to evacuate if they lived near water or mountain flanks.
As of Saturday, AccuWeather forecasters say Elsa is most likely to enter the eastern Gulf of Mexico and approach Florida early this week.
“Elsa is expected to regain some wind intensity early this week once it passes north of Cuba and moves into the eastern Gulf,” AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Adam Douty said. “And there is a chance that conditions may be favorable for Elsa to affect Florida as a hurricane for a time during Tuesday and Wednesday,” he added.
A tropical storm watch is in effect for the Florida Keys spanning from Craig Key westward into the Dry Tortugas. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency on Saturday for 15 counties in the state ahead of Elsa’s arrival, 7 News Miami reported.
Weather conditions could begin to deteriorate in the Florida Keys and southern Florida as soon as Monday night. At this early stage, there is the likelihood of flooding rainfall, damaging winds and power outages over the Florida Peninsula with perhaps the worst conditions along the Gulf Coast side.
AccuWeather meteorologists urge people who live in or near the potential storm zone to have a plan of action.
AccuWeather forecasters warn that for residents of Florida, now is the time to secure materials and tools necessary to install storm shutters. They also advise fueling up and testing generators and gathering bags for travel in case of a need to evacuate.
Rather than tracking along the Gulf coast of Florida, it is still possible that Elsa could instead move northward over the Florida Peninsula, shifting the rainfall and gusty winds inland. The exact track of the center of circulation is key in determining wind direction and intensity of the storm as it impacts the Sunshine State.
The potential impacts across numerous barrier islands and inland harbors along Florida’s Gulf Coast will all be determined by the direction, magnitude and duration of the wind. As the storm lifts northward across the state, shifting winds will also batter different sections of shoreline.
This can all result in headaches for those looking for a safe place to moor a boat, or for those looking to prepare their homes and property for the incoming storm.
But Elsa’s exact track and strength — whether it approaches the U.S. as a tropical storm or a hurricane — will be determined by how it behaves over the Caribbean.
AccuWeather meteorologists have rated Elsa a 2 on the AccuWeather RealImpact™ Scale for Hurricanes for the Caribbean due to the expected flooding, damaging winds and storm surge. The scale is a six-point one with ratings that range from less than 1 to 1 to 5.
A hurricane warning was in effect for the southern coast of Dominican Republic and Haiti. On Saturday, the government of the Dominican Republic discontinued their tropical storm watch and warning, as the track of the storm shifted toward western Haiti.
Hurricane warnings that were in place across Jamaica have since been replaced with tropical storm warnings. Portions of eastern Cuba are under a hurricane watch, and many other tropical storm warnings were posted for several islands throughout the Caribbean — and for good reason. Sustained winds of 74 mph and a gust up to 86 mph have already been reported on Barbados, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said.
Tropical storm watches were discontinued for St. Lucia and Martinique at 8 p.m. EDT Friday, and a tropical storm warning was discontinued for Grenada and its dependencies at the same time.
Elsa will continue to race across the Caribbean, directly impacting the islands of Hispaniola, Jamaica and Cuba this weekend before turning its sights on the southeastern United States early this week.
“This is the earliest in the season we have ever seen a hurricane hit the region around Barbados and for a hurricane to roll across the Caribbean this early is also unprecedented,” AccuWeather Chief On-Air Meteorologist Bernie Rayno said.
Its forward speed of 28 mph late last week was highly unusual for a tropical storm in the tropics. A more common forward speed is 10-14 mph.
Elsa is expected to deliver its heaviest rainfall totals of 4 to 8 inches, with an AccuWeather Local StormMax™ of 15 inches, across portions of Cuba and Florida. Wind gusts of 80-100 mph with an AccuWeather StormMax™ of 120 mph will occur near the track of the storm across southwest Haiti. The same region along with the southern coast of Cuba is expected to see a 3- to 6-foot storm surge.
Douty added that beyond the Windward Islands, some fluctuation in strength with Elsa is possible as the tropical cyclone tracks west-northwestward through the Caribbean.
As Elsa speeds along, torrential downpours, strong winds, building seas and surf will precede the storm by a matter of hours.
While a steady track to the west-northwest is highly likely through much of this weekend, there remains some question as to the exact track near Cuba on Sunday and Monday.
The exact path of Elsa is key not only to the intensity of the tropical storm near Cuba, but also the location and magnitude of the worst impacts in the southeastern U.S., which could begin in the Florida Keys and southern Florida as early as Monday night.
Should Elsa continue west-northwestward and avoid crossing Cuba, little weakening is likely, and significant strengthening may occur over the northwestern Caribbean and the central Gulf of Mexico. However, a track over Cuba, which is more likely at this time, would lead to some temporary weakening of the tropical cyclone.
Since some reduction in forward speed of the storm is predicted, rainfall amounts may increase over Cuba and Florida, compared to some of the islands in the Caribbean, depending on the storm’s track.
Rainfall amounts from Elsa could be significant. The AccuWeather Local StormMax™ for Cuba and Florida from this weekend through the middle of this week is 15 inches.
One of the more recent hurricanes with a path that could remotely resemble Elsa’s projection near Florida, was Irma from September 2017. Irma made a direct hit on the Florida Keys and southwestern Florida as a powerful Category 4 hurricane. The hurricane pushed northward on Florida’s west coast and caused 10 fatalities and $50 billion in damages in the U.S. with power outages that reached 7.5 million in Florida alone, according to the NHC.
Beyond early this week, there is speculation that Elsa may continue on after a direct impact in the Southeastern states and possibly make a northward run along the Atlantic Coast. As a result, residents and businesses along the East coast of the U.S. from Georgia to Maine should also monitor Elsa’s progress and the weather forecast.
Given the current track of Elsa, rainfall is expected to spread into the eastern portions of the Carolinas during the second half of this week.
“With Elsa expected to lose wind intensity during the middle part of this week, the tropical cyclone’s forward speed may increase once again. Rainfall totals are generally forecast to range from 2-4 inches for much of South Carolina with locally higher amounts possible in the far southern portion of the state and 1-2 inches farther north over eastern North Carolina,” Douty said.
Should Elsa’s forward speed begin to be reduced, then rainfall would be even heavier over the Carolinas.
AccuWeather will continue to provide updates on Elsa throughout this weekend and into the week.