Early next week, Elsa will approach the southeast United States, bringing the potential for heavy rain and flooding, along with a secondary concern for strong winds and a storm surge, or rise in ocean water above normally dry land.
Florida could first be affected by the storm early next week, but “forecast uncertainty remains larger than usual due to Elsa’s potential interaction with the Greater Antilles this weekend,” the National Hurricane Center wrote. “Interests in Florida should monitor Elsa’s progress and updates to the forecast.”
The official Hurricane Center forecast brings Elsa into the vicinity of the Florida peninsula Tuesday as a high-end tropical storm (with 65 mph winds), but this track and intensity projection could change.
Since part of Champlain Towers South condo in Surfside, Fla., collapsed more than a week ago, stormy conditions have already slowed rescue efforts and tropical storm or hurricane conditions could pose another major setback.
Elsa became the earliest fifth named storm in the Atlantic Thursday, breaking last year’s record when Edouard formed on July 6. The 2020 hurricane season later went on to produce an unmatched 30 named storms, including 14 hurricanes and seven major hurricanes.
As the first hurricane of the 2021 Atlantic season, Elsa is about five weeks ahead of the Aug. 10 historical average.
Hurricane warnings are in effect for the southern coast of the Dominican Republic and Haiti and hurricane watch is in effect for Jamaica.
The decision to upgrade Elsa to hurricane status was clinched when weather stations on Barbados recorded actual hurricane conditions Friday morning. Sustained winds at the 74 mph hurricane threshold were observed, along with gusts to 86 mph.
By Friday afternoon, Elsa’s winds had climbed to 85 mph, 40 mph higher than just 24 hours earlier, exceeding the criteria for “rapid intensification” or 35 mph increase in wind over the course of a day. The tendency for such speedy strengthening has increased in recent decades, probably tied to climate change and warming of the oceans, scientists say.
The storm lashed the Barbados as authorities in St. Vincent and the Grenadines — still recovering from destructive recent volcanic eruptions — urged residents to prepare.
“That level of sustained wind can blow down a lot of buildings and cause a lot of damage,” said St. Vincent Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, according to the Associated Press. “I am pleading with you. Let us not take this hurricane lightly. This is not the time to play the fool.”
At 2 p.m. Eastern time, Elsa’s center of circulation had entered the Caribbean, about 580 miles east-southeast of the Dominican Republic. The storm was zipping to the west-northwest at 29 mph.
On satellite, Elsa’s structure had improved meteorologically despite several obstacles that would ordinarily impede intensification. The system’s swift westward motion would, in most circumstances, work to disrupt the extent to which its low-, mid- and upper-level circulations can remain “coupled,” or linked to one another. However, Elsa managed to blossom in the face of that and some light to moderate wind shear, or a disruptive change of wind speed and/or direction with altitude.
Elsa is likely to maintain current strength or intensify slightly as it churns west into the Caribbean after dousing Barbados and the Windward Islands with a widespread 3 to 6 inches of rain.
The National Hurricane Center is calling for Elsa to remain a hurricane through Saturday afternoon as it closes in on Haiti and the Dominican Republic from the south while slowly curving west-northwest. Conditions will be quickly deteriorating in Haiti and western parts of the Dominican Republic around then, with a widespread 4 to 8 inches of rainfall possible and localized 15 inch amounts. Due both to the mountainous topography of the county and decades of inveterate deforestation, Haiti is extremely susceptible to heavy rainfall and mudslides.
Elsa will probably clip western Haiti before heading northwest toward Cuba on Sunday morning. If Elsa winds up passing between Haiti and Jamaica, it will have a few extra hours over water and could intensify even further as a hurricane.
Interaction with the high terrain of Cuba may interrupt Elsa’s circulation and induce weakening, but uncertainty exists on to what extent, which will probably hinge on Elsa’s ultimate track.
Thereafter, confidence diminishes as Elsa probably emerges into the Gulf of Mexico. Sea surface temperatures are sufficiently warm to support a hurricane, and already Elsa has exhibited a tendency to overachieve. However, if its low-level circulation becomes shredded and ragged following its encounter with Cuba, it will be more difficult for Elsa to reorganize. Therefore, predicting any specific impacts in Florida or along the shores of the Gulf of Mexico is, at this time frame, not possible.
During the mid- to late portions of next week, Elsa’s track and subsequent U.S. impacts depend on the position of a cold front that will be draped along the Eastern Seaboard. It’s possible that, if the cold front is shunted farther south and east, it deflects Elsa’s remnants out to sea after sideswiping the Carolinas. A more inland cold front would permit a greater fetch of tropical moisture to stream north from the storm, interacting with the front and bringing very heavy rain and pockets of flooding along the entire U.S. East Coast.
It won’t be until probably Monday before we have a better handle on specific U.S. impacts.
While forecast models agree on the storm’s general track through the Caribbean, they diverge wildly once the storm nears Jamaica and the Dominican Republic.
According to Colorado State University hurricane researcher Philip Klotzbach, Elsa’s maturation into a hurricane also occurred farther east than any other named storm so early in the year since 1933.
Jason Samenow, Lateshia Beachum and Christine Armario contributed to this article.