Tropical Storm Elsa could intensify as it nears landfall in Cuba

Photo courtesy: CNN

By Madeline Holcombe, Ralph Ellis and Michael Guy, CNN

(CNN) -- Tropical Storm Elsa neared the southern shores of Cuba on Monday, where warm, shallow waters could help it intensify before making landfall.

Elsa was 20 miles to the east-southeast of Cayo Largo, an island off Cuba's southern coast, and tracking to the northwest at 14 mph, according to an 11 a.m. ET update from the National Hurricane Center.

The storm was expected to make landfall around midday.

The center of the storm is forecast to remain over Cuba for much of Monday before moving into the Florida Straits, CNN meteorologist Haley Brink said.

The Florida Keys and other parts of the state will feel high winds Monday evening and by Wednesday morning the storm is likely to make landfall on the Florida Peninsula north of Tampa Bay, around Cedar Key.

Elsa is forecast to bring a storm surge of 3 to 5 feet to the southern coast of Cuba as it makes landfall, Brink said. Heavy rain is also forecast, with widespread rainfall totals of 5 to 10 inches and isolated amounts up to 15 inches possible. This amount of rainfall could result in significant flash flooding and mudslides for Cuba.

Elsa currently has sustained winds of 65 mph but additional strengthening could bring hurricane-force winds to the island. Category 1 hurricane strength begins with winds at 74 mph.

Elsa was the first hurricane of the 2021 Atlantic season and is the third named storm to pose a threat to the US coast.

Elsa has moved westward, prompting governments to drop advisories for eastern Cuba and Jamaica, according to the National Hurricane Center. But now the Cuban provinces of Matanzas and Cienfuegos are under a hurricane warning, and a hurricane watch has been issued for the province of Camaguey.

Jamaica is expected to see additional rainfall amounts of 2 to 4 inches, making storm totals up to 15 inches in some locations. Scattered flash flooding and mudslides could be significant across the island. The Cayman Islands can expect up to 5 inches of rainfall, which may lead to some areas of flash flooding.

Officials in Surfside, Florida, have been keeping a close eye on the storm as search and rescue teams scour debris from the the collapse of the Champlain Towers South condo for survivors and remains.

The part of the building still standing was demolished late Sunday night, a move that was hastened by fears that a storm could cause the remains to crumble and put rescue teams at risk.

Elsa's path toward Florida

A "marginal" level 1 out of 5 risk for severe storms has been issued for southern Florida, including Surfside, Brink said.

The main threat for severe storms will be Monday afternoon into the evening hours. Threats include lightning, bouts of heavy rainfall at times and strong, gusty winds. An isolated tornado or waterspout cannot be ruled out.

Beginning Monday night, tropical storm conditions with winds 39 mph or greater are expected for parts of the Florida Keys, Brink said.

The storm will begin to shift direction Tuesday, heading north-northeast into the Florida Peninsula. Some restrengthening is possible as it impacts the west coast of the state with rain, high surf and possible tornadoes.

President Joe Biden has approved an Emergency Declaration for Florida as the storm approaches.

The declaration, which began Sunday, authorizes the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate all disaster relief efforts in 15 counties in southern Florida.

Tropical storm warnings are in effect up the west coast of Florida, from Flamingo in the Everglades to Englewood, which is north of Fort Myers, and in the Florida Keys from Craig Key westward to the Dry Tortugas, according to the NHC.

By early Wednesday, the storm is on track to brush the Pinellas Peninsula and impact the St. Petersburg and Tampa Bay region as a tropical storm.

By Wednesday morning, Elsa will likely make landfall on the Florida Peninsula north of Tampa Bay, around Cedar Key.

More than 4 inches of rain could fall near parts of the west coast between Monday night and Wednesday. There is also the risk for brief, spin-up tornadoes and strong, gusty winds, which could cause some power outages in addition to up to 4 feet of storm surge, Brink said.

Elsa will then likely head into Georgia and the Carolinas before exiting back into the Atlantic as a tropical depression Thursday afternoon.

Damage and deaths reported in the Caribbean

By early Monday, three deaths had been linked to the storm.

One person died on the island of St. Lucia and two in the Dominican Republic, authorities said.

Two people were killed in separate incidents the Dominican Republic as Elsa lashed the Caribbean island on Saturday, the country's Emergency Operations Center said.

Heavy winds from Elsa caused walls to collapse in Bahoruco, killing a 15-year-old, and in Bani, killing a 75-year-old, the center reported.

There were no reports of loss of life or major injuries in Barbados after then-Hurricane Elsa passed through Friday, according to Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley, speaking at a news conference Saturday.

"It could have been far worse, but it was bad enough, and certainly one of the more challenging events we've had to deal with in recent times with respect to climate," the prime minster said.

At least 743 roofs were damaged by the storm, said Kerry Hinds, director of Barbados' emergency management agency.

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