Fast-moving Tropical Storm Elsa swept along Cuba’s southern coast early on Monday, and forecasters said it would make landfall on the island’s Bay of Pigs on its central coast by mid-afternoon before threatening Florida.
Cuban officials had evacuated 180,000 people as a precaution against the possibility of heavy flooding from a storm that already battered several Caribbean islands, killing at least three people.
“We continue with maximum attention focused on the track of storm Elsa through Cuba,” Cuba President Miguel Diaz-Canel tweeted. “Authorities are working all over the country.”
Elsa was forecast to cross over Cuba by Monday night and then head for the United States state of Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis declared an emergency in 15 counties, including in Miami-Dade County, where a high-rise condominium building collapsed on June 24.
The Miami-based US National Hurricane Center warned in an alert that tornadoes were possible across southern Florida on Monday afternoon and into July 6.
The remaining portion of the collapsed Florida condo building was demolished on July 4 as rescuers resumed the search for 118 missing victims. Three more bodies were found in the rubble on Monday, bringing the number of confirmed dead to 27.
Late on Sunday, Elsa’s centre was about 440km (270 miles) southeast of Havana and moving northwest at 24km/h (15mph). Its maximum sustained winds had strengthened a bit to about 100km/h (65mph), the National Hurricane Center (NHC) in Miami said.
The NHC said the storm was likely to gradually weaken while passing over central Cuba. “After Elsa emerges over the Florida Straits and the southeastern Gulf of Mexico, some slight re-strengthening is possible,” it said.
Rain fell intermittently in Cuba’s eastern provinces throughout Sunday as the storm passed by to the south. Evacuees stayed at relatives’ homes, went to government shelters, and hundreds living in mountainous areas took refuge in caves prepared for emergencies.
“So far it’s a soft, serene rain. There are no downpours. The streets are not overflowing,” Yolanda Tabío, a 73-year-old retiree living in Santiago, told The Associated Press. “I thought it could be worse.”
Rafael Carmenate, a volunteer for the local Red Cross who lives facing the beach in Santa Cruz del Sur, told the AP by telephone: “We have a little water – showers. The sea has not intruded. It’s cloudy and gusty.”
The storm killed one person on St Lucia, according to the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency. A 15-year-old boy and a 75-year-old woman died on Saturday in separate events in the Dominican Republic after walls collapsed on them, according to a statement from the country’s Emergency Operations Center.
Elsa was a Category 1 hurricane until Saturday morning, causing widespread damage on several eastern Caribbean islands on July 2 as the first hurricane of the Atlantic season. Among the hardest hit was Barbados, where more than 1,100 people reported damaged houses, including 62 homes that collapsed.
Downed trees also were reported in Haiti, which is especially vulnerable to floods and landslides because of widespread erosion and deforestation. Haiti’s Civil Protection Agency said on Sunday that three people had been injured by downed trees.
A tropical storm warning was in effect for western Cuba and the Florida Keys from Craig Key westward to the Dry Tortugas. Cuba’s government posted a hurricane warning for Cienfuegos and Matanzas provinces.
Elsa is the earliest fifth-named storm on record and also broke the record as the tropic’s fastest-moving hurricane, clocking in at 50km/h (31mph) Saturday morning, said Brian McNoldy, a hurricane researcher at the University of Miami.
Portions of Cuba were forecast to get rainfall of 13 to 25cm (five to 10 inches) through Monday, with isolated spots getting up to 20cm (15 inches). Jamaica expected a total of 10 to 20cm (four to eight inches), with maximum totals of 38cm (15 inches).