Deadly tropical storm Elsa nears landfall in Cuba, on track to Florida

Otto Gonzalez prepares his home for the arrival of Storm Elsa, Havana, Cuba, July 5, 2021.
Otto Gonzalez prepares his home for the arrival of Storm Elsa, Havana, Cuba, July 5, 2021. Photo credit: Reuters

Tropical storm Elsa neared landfall around Cuba's Bay of Pigs on Monday and was set to churn across the country on track to Florida after causing at least three deaths, flooding and damage elsewhere in the Caribbean.

The storm comes as the Caribbean's island nations are already struggling with the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic on their tourism-reliant economies and bracing for another especially active hurricane season.

Cuba's Meteorology Institute said Elsa, which had previously sowed havoc in parts of Barbados, St Lucia, Haiti, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, was moving northwest at 22 km/h, and that sustained winds were peaking near 100 km/h.

The storm was expected to make landfall in the vicinity of the Bay of Pigs on Cuba's southern Caribbean coast around midday, then exit the country overnight between Havana and the city of Matanzas on the northwest side, the institute said.

The US National Hurricane Center (NHC) said a tropical storm watch and storm surge watch were in place for much of the western coast of Florida. Elsa is expected to pass near the Florida Keys early Tuesday and move near or over portions of the west coast of Florida on Tuesday and Wednesday, it said.

"We continue with maximum attention focused on the track of storm Elsa through Cuba," President Miguel Diaz-Canel tweeted early in the morning. "Authorities are working all over the country."

More than 100,000 people in Cuba have been evacuated from flood-prone areas or unsafe housing in the potential path of the storm, most to homes of family and friends, but thousands also to government shelters, state-run media reported.

While such preparedness has typically enabled Cuba to avoid the kind of casualties from storms seen elsewhere, it comes amid Cuba's worst coronavirus outbreak since the start of the pandemic, raising fears evacuations could fuel infections.

State-run television showed images of farmers speeding up harvesting of fruit and vegetables to save them from the storm, and local authorities removing debris from the streets to prevent them flying around in the wind.

Rainfall of 5-10 inches with isolated maximum amounts of 15 inches was forecast across parts of Cuba on Monday and expected to result in "significant flash flooding and mudslides", the Miami-based NHC said.

“Last night there was still a lot of rain and some wind in Granma and I heard more so in Guantanamo," homemaker Maidelis Vegas said in the foothills of the Sierra Maestra Mountains in eastern Cuba.

Overflowing streams and rivers had cut roads and inundated bridges in various coffee-picking villages in the Escambray Mountains in central Cuba, a regular occurrence that local authorities prepare for, for example by sending teams of doctors and supplies before storms hit.

The NHC said amounts of 2-4 inches of rain with localized maximum amounts up to 6 inches are expected across Florida and coastal Georgia through Wednesday, which might trigger isolated flash, urban, and minor river flooding.

A few tornadoes were possible across south Florida on Monday night and across the Florida peninsula on Tuesday, it added.

"All Floridians should prepare for the possibility of heavy rain, flooding and potential power outages," Florida Governor Ron DeSantis wrote on Twitter. "Now is the time to restock your supplies and review your hurricane plan."

The approach of the storm forced Florida officials to demolish the remaining portion of a condo building that collapsed 11 days ago, killing at least 24 people with over 120 still missing.

Meteorologists are forecasting an above-normal 2021 Atlantic hurricane season, after a 2020 season that was the most active on record, producing 30 named tropical storms.