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Tropical Storm Elsa threatens Florida with heavy rain, wind early next week

Stormy conditions could reach South Florida by Monday

Hurricane Elsa on Saturday morning. (NOAA)
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This article was updated to reflect Elsa’s change from a hurricane to a tropical storm.

Tropical Storm Elsa, downgraded from a hurricane Saturday morning, is racing across the Caribbean and on a track to bring disruptive weather to Florida early next week. Impacts from the storm could arrive as soon as Monday, before it charges through the Southeast during the middle of the week.

However, there are major questions about how strong the storm will be and exactly where it will track.

“There is an increasing risk of tropical storm conditions, storm surge, and rainfall impacts beginning Monday in the Florida Keys and the southern Florida Peninsula,” the National Hurricane Center wrote Saturday morning. “This risk will spread northward along the Florida Peninsula through Wednesday and reach the coasts of Georgia and the Carolinas Wednesday and Thursday, however uncertainty in the forecast remains larger than usual due to Elsa’s potential interaction with the islands of Hispaniola and Cuba.”

The prospect of tropical storm or hurricane conditions is a particular concern for South Florida after part of the Champlain Towers South condo in Surfside, Fla., collapsed more than a week ago.

Officials in Florida accelerate plans to demolish unstable remains of condo tower ahead of potential tropical storm

Currently, the Hurricane Center forecasts Elsa to be a tropical storm with 60 to 65 mph winds when it’s in Florida’s vicinity between late Monday night and Wednesday. The Hurricane Center said it may post tropical storm or hurricane watches for parts of the area by late Saturday.

Elsa: Now through Monday

At 11 a.m. Saturday, Elsa was just 40 miles southeast of the Dominican Republic, racing to the west-northwest at 29 mph, an exceptionally fast forward speed. It peak winds had dropped from 85 mph on Friday afternoon to 70 mph, resulting in a change of classification from a hurricane to tropical storm.

Brian McNoldy, a tropical weather expert at the University of Miami and contributor to the Capital Weather Gang, said that the storm’s uncommon speed is “taking a toll on its structure.” It’s moving so fast, that it’s being sheared by wind causing it to weaken some.

While the storm isn’t as strong as it once was, hurricane warnings cover the south coasts of the Dominican Republic and Haiti while a tropical storm warning is in effect for Jamaica, where conditions are expected to deteriorate Saturday. Eastern Cuba is also under a tropical storm warning, where the worst weather is expected Sunday into Monday.

The Hurricane Center predicts 4 to 8 inches of rain in the southern portions of the Dominican Republic and Haiti, as well as Jamaica. In Cuba, 5 to 10 inches of rain are forecast. Localized amounts of up to 15 inches are possible throughout this zone, especially in the high terrain, causing flash floods and mudslides, the Hurricane Center wrote.

Elsa is also expected to generate a storm surge, or rise in ocean water above normally dry land, of several feet along the southern coasts of the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

As Elsa interacts with land over the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba, it is expected to further weaken into a low-end tropical storm, but it may regain some strength over the waters north of Cuba and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico on Monday.

Elsa: Monday through the middle of next week

The Hurricane Center calls for tropical-storm-force winds to reach South Florida on Sunday night at the earliest, but more realistically Monday or Monday night.

On its projected path, the center of Elsa would be near the Florida Keys on Monday night and close to Tampa Bay on Tuesday. However, the Hurricane Center’s cone of uncertainty, or projected zone for the storm’s possible location, widens with time and spans from the eastern Gulf of Mexico to offshore Florida’s Atlantic coast by early Wednesday.

Rain from the storm could reach areas at considerable distances from its center. At the moment, the Hurricane Center is forecasting 2 to 4 inches of rain with up to 6 inches in the Florida Keys and South Florida through early in the week, which could result in “isolated” areas of flooding. Heavy rain could also affect areas farther north on the Florida Peninsula, especially Tuesday into Wednesday.

Impacts from wind and storm surge will depend on Elsa’s strength as it approaches Florida. While the current Hurricane Center expectation is that Elsa will be a strong tropical storm, it’s not out of the question that it could be stronger (i.e., a hurricane) or weaker.

What remains of Elsa may track north through the Southeast on Wednesday into Thursday, bringing areas of heavy rain, while also possibly impacting the Mid-Atlantic.

An unusual and record-setting storm

When Elsa formed as a tropical storm on Thursday, it became the earliest fifth-named Atlantic storm on record. Upon reaching hurricane strength on Friday, it was five weeks ahead of the Aug. 10 historical average for the first such occurrence. Elsa was the earliest first hurricane to form since Chris in 2012, McNoldy tweeted.

According to Colorado State University hurricane researcher Philip Klotzbach, Elsa’s maturation into a hurricane occurred farther east than any other named storm so early in the year since 1933.

“The fact that Elsa became a hurricane where it did and when it did is probably the most striking and remarkable aspect of it so far,” McNoldy wrote in an email.

McNoldy noted that the only other two seasons when hurricanes formed in a similar location at this time of year were 1993 and 2005, two of the most active Atlantic hurricane seasons on record. “This just shouldn’t be happening yet,” he wrote.