Tropical Storm Elsa headed to landfall on central Cuba coast

HAVANA (AP) — Tropical Storm Elsa swept along Cuba's southern coast early Monday, and forecasters said it could make landfall on the island's central shore by midafternoon.

By Sunday, 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. Most of those evacuated stayed at relatives' homes, others went to government shelters, and hundreds living in mountainous areas took refuge in caves prepared for emergencies. 

Elsa was forecast to cross over Cuba by Monday night and then head for Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency in 15 counties, including in Miami-Dade County, where a high-rise condominium building collapsed last week. 

Late Sunday, Elsa's center was about 270 miles (440 kilometers) southeast of Havana and moving northwest at 15 mph (24 kph). Its maximum sustained winds had strengthened a bit to about 65 mph (100 kph), the National Hurricane Center in Miami said.

The center 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.

“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 Saturday in separate events in the Dominican Republic after walls collapsed on them, according to a statement from the Emergency Operations Center.

Elsa was a Category 1 hurricane until Saturday morning, causing widespread damage on several eastern Caribbean islands Friday 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 Sunday that three people had been injured by downed trees.

A tropical storm warning was in effect for western Cuba and for 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 31 mph Saturday morning, said Brian McNoldy, a hurricane researcher at the University of Miami.

Portions of Cuba were forecast to get rainfall of 5 to 10 inches (13 to 25 centimeters) through Monday, with isolated spots getting up to 15 inches (20 centimeters). Jamaica expected a total of 4 to 8 inches (10 to 20 centimeters), with maximum totals of 15 inches (38 centimeters).

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