Fast-moving Atlantic Storm Elsa makes landfall in Cuba

Fears of heavy flooding as Cuba orders 180,000 people evacuated ahead of a storm that battered Caribbean islands.

Large clouds hang over Havana, Cuba, before the passage of Tropical Storm Elsa, on July 5 [Yamil Lage/AFP]

Tropical Storm Elsa has brought “flooding rains” and strong winds to Cuba after making landfall near the island nation’s Bay of Pigs on the south-central coast, as forecasters said the storm is expected to move toward the United States.

The storm was moving over mainly rural areas to the east of Havana after making landfall near Cienega de Zapata, a natural park with few inhabitants, on Monday afternoon.

By late afternoon, Elsa’s maximum sustained winds had slowed to 85 kilometres per hour (50mph).

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,” Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel tweeted. “Authorities are working all over the country.”

In Havana, shops were still open on Monday morning as residents headed out under increasingly swirling skies in search of bread and other crucial supplies. Others took the opportunity to clear rooftops of debris that the storm could turn into projectiles.

Overall there was a reluctance among Habaneros to take this early storm too seriously – but the city’s provincial defence council (CDP) told residents that while “the winds will not be strong … there may be heavy rainfall with danger for vulnerable homes and buildings”.

Municipal workers had been on the streets for several days clearing storm drains, and brigades were assembled in case of landslides. A further brigade was called up “for minor tasks: falling walls, stairs, balconies”, all three of which are major concerns during storms in the crumbling city.

Stephanie Rioja attends a vigil as the partially collapsed Champlain Towers South residential building is demolished ahead of the possible arrival of Tropical Storm Elsa in Surfside, near Miami Beach, Florida, on July 4 [Shannon Stapleton/Reuters]

Elsa was forecast to cross over Cuba by Monday night and then head for the US 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.

The National Hurricane Center (NHC) in Miami 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).

Ruaridh Nicoll contributed reporting from Havana, Cuba.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies