Hurricane Elsa forms, could impact condo collapse search efforts

Elsa strengthened into the first hurricane of the Atlantic season on Friday as it battered the eastern Caribbean, where authorities closed schools, businesses and airports, and it appeared headed eventually for Florida, where officials warned it could impact search and rescue efforts at the site of the collapsed condo building in Surfside. 

Elsa became the farthest east that a hurricane has formed this early in the tropical Atlantic since 1933, according to Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach.

The Category 1 storm unleashed heavy rains and winds on Barbados and then on St. Vincent and the Grenadines, which are struggling to recover from recent massive volcanic eruptions.

Elsa was located about 5 miles north of St. Vincent and was moving west-northwest at 29 mph. It had maximum sustained winds of 75 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

“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. “I am pleading with you. Let us not take this hurricane lightly. This is not the time to play the fool.”

Tropical Weather Elsa
This satellite image provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows Hurricane Elsa moving through the Caribbean, over Barbados, Tuesday, July 2, 2021, at 8am a.m. ET.  AP

A hurricane warning was in effect for St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, as well as southern Haiti from the capital, Port-au-Prince, to the southern border with the Dominican Republic.

The long-term track showed the fast-moving storm rolling toward Hispaniola, the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic, as a hurricane before weakening back to tropical storm force and potentially heading to Florida.

The storm could complicate search and rescue efforts at the site of the collapsed condo building in Surfside, Florida.  Officials said they will continue to closely monitor the storm forecast, saying winds could hit the site as soon as Sunday afternoon.

“It is possible that this area could see tropical-storm force winds,” said Governor Ron DeSantis, saying that the site would be treated with a “special emphasis” to protect equipment at the site, and the building itself could be further damaged by the storm.

Authorities opened dozens of shelters in St. Vincent and urged people to evacuate if they lived near a valley, given the threat of flash flooding, mudslides and lahars, especially in the northern part of the island where La Soufrière volcano is located.

“Do not wait until it’s too late to go to a shelter,” Gonsalves said.

He said 94 shelters are open, a smaller number than in previous years because some 2,000 people remain in other shelters following massive volcanic eruptions that began in early April.

A hurricane watch was issued for Jamaica and the south coast of the Dominican Republic from Punta Palenque to the border with Haiti.

Elsa is the earliest fifth-named storm on record, beating out last year’s Eduardo which formed on July 6, according Klotzbach. The 1991-2020 average date for the first Atlantic hurricane formation is mid-August.

The storm was forecast to bring 3 to 6 inches (7 to 15 centimeters) of rain with maximum totals of 10 inches (25 centimeters) inches on Friday across the Windward and southern Leeward Islands. The rain could unleash isolated flash flooding and mudslides.