Tropical Storm Elsa continued to churn through the Caribbean Saturday night, leaving at least three people dead as flooding and mudslides remained a threat into Sunday for Hispaniola, the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
The Caribbean Disaster Management Agency confirmed that at least one person had died in St. Lucia when the storm, upgraded to a Category 1 hurricane Friday morning, battered the tourist haven along with the eastern Caribbean island nations of Barbados and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
Emergency officials in the Dominican Republic also blamed Elsa for the deaths of two people Saturday—a 15-year-old boy and a 75-year-old woman—when walls collapsed on them in two separate incidents. Across the border in Haiti, the head of the Office of Civil Protection, Jerry Chandler, said the agency was making calls to municipalities, but as of 9 p.m. Saturday there were no reported fatalities.
“There is structural damage, especially to agriculture,” Chandler said, adding that the government heard of a storm surge in the city of Les Cayes, on Haiti’s southern peninsula.
In its 8 pm advisory, the National Hurricane Hurricane Center warned that portions of southern Hispaniola and Jamaica could see rainfall of 4 to 8 inches, with isolated maximum amounts of 15 inches into Sunday. The heavy rainfall, it said, could lead to scattered flash flooding and mudslides.
“The passage of this hurricane along the south of the country can be very dangerous,” acting Haitian Prime Minister Claude Joseph said Saturday, warning Haitians in vulnerable areas to be prepared to evacuate and to avoid crossing rivers. “It’s coming with a lot of rain, a lot of wind.”
The day before, Elsa battered the eastern Caribbean islands of Barbados, St. Lucia and the St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
Though it had weakened from a Category 1 hurricane to a tropical storm, its trajectory was still a concern as Haitians braced for passage close to the country’s southern region late Saturday into Sunday, then moving toward Jamaica and portions of eastern Cuba on Sunday.
The impact of the storm in the eastern Caribbean, especially in Barbados, has raised concerns about the increasing impact of climate systems in the Caribbean, which is now seeing the formation of hurricanes much earlier. This is already the fifth storm system of the Atlantic season.
Even though Elsa missed Barbados, it took out all of the electricity, damaged at least 586 roofs and led to the collapse of at least 20 homes, according to preliminary assessments, the head of the Caribbean Disaster Management Agency said.
“The Barbados Meteorological Service said the eye of the storm crossed about 20 miles to the south of the island but because of the extent to which the hurricane force winds extended,” there was widespread damage, Elizabeth Riley said during a press conference.
“There have been other impacts from other systems in a similar way where the eye would have passed off shore,” she added. “Climate change is no longer a conversation that is futuristic but climate change is happening right now and we anticipate seeing further changes in the future.”
While damage assessments are ongoing, initial reports show that half of Barbados’ population was still without power Saturday morning, while in neighboring St. Lucia, residents were also dealing with blackouts, disruption to the drinking water supply and “significant roof damage” to homes and government apartments from the hurricane force winds.
In St. Vincent and the Grenadines, where 2,000 people were already in shelters from the erupting La Soufrière volcano, authorities reported downed power lines, roof damages to at least 43 homes and a partly damaged bridge.
Grenada has also reported damage, although the extent of it is unclear.
With the system aimed at Haiti, Riley said they were in ongoing conversations with the country’s Office of Civil Protection for guidance if a humanitarian response is needed.
“We are looking at the situation with the system itself, because the system and the characteristics of the system help to paint the kind of scenario that could potentially play out in terms of impact,” she said. “Haiti has certainly faced Category 1 systems before and the national level systems, I would say have become more robust of the year.”
“The forward speed of the system is of assistance to us,” she added about Elsa. “it’s still quite quick for a cyclone. The faster the system passes through, the general rule of thumb is the less damage it’s likely to cause compared to if it had a slower movement.”
At 8 a.m. Saturday, the National Hurricane Center said the center of the hurricane was located 110 miles southeast of Isla Beata, Dominican Republic, and about 440 miles east-southeast of Kingston, Jamaica. The storm was moving toward the west-northwest at around 31 mph and had maximum sustained winds of 75 mph.
By the 11 a.m. advisory, the National Hurricane Center said Elsa had weakened and downgraded it to a tropical storm. It had maximum sustained winds of 70 mph and was moving west northwest at 29 mph, about 40 miles south of Isla Beata in the Dominican Republic and about 350 miles east of Kingston, Jamaica. Tropical storm level winds extended 125 miles from the center.
On Saturday, Dominican authorities said that Elsa would be creating tropical storm conditions in the southern provinces on Hispaniola’s coasts, and particularly in Barahona’s peninsula. They warned residents of the island to not let their guard down.
“The worst hasn’t passed because we have precipitation that will continue in a great part of our territory,” said Director General Juan Manuel Méndez of the Dominican Republic’s Emergency Operations Center, “and models are saying there will be important rains after 2 pm or 3 pm in a great part of the national geography.”
All provinces in the Dominican Republic are on emergency alert as a result of the storm. Nine provinces—Barahona, Pedernales, Peravia, Azua, San Cristóbal, San José de Ocoa, Santo Domingo, Distrito Nacional and San Pedro de Macorís—are on red alert. All are located in the south of Hispaniola, which is closest to the path of Hurricane Elsa. Sixteen, concentrated in the east, west, and center of the island are on yellow alert. The remaining seven, all on the northern tip of the country, are on green alert.
Accumulated rainfalls will be between 4 inches and 7 inches toward Enriquillo and Valdesia. In some mountainous areas, precipitation levels could be higher. The waters around Hispaniola continue to have storm-related wind and wave activity, officials added. Throughout the coastal areas of the south that border the Caribbean, the storm surge could reach 9 and 10 feet in height.
All ships that are located in Caribbean waters are urged to stay in port, along with vessels that are on the Atlantic coast from Cabo Engaño to Cabo Cabrón in Samaná. As in Haiti, authorities warned residents the country could experience the possible flooding of rivers, streams and ravines as well as sudden inundations.
Early Saturday, the weather over Haiti was partly cloudy with moderately strong winds and with a few stronger gusts. But Joseph, the prime minister, reported that regions had already experienced rainfall.
Vulnerable to any heavy rainfall, Haiti is forecast to receive cumulative rainfall of 4 to 6 inches of rain — or even 8 inches on the mountains including the La Selle mountain range, La Hotte and the La Gonâve. Strong wind gusts ranging from 73 mph and 80 mph, as well as dangerous sea conditions, were in the forecast. All could cause severe flooding, flash floods, mudslides and coastal flooding in the southern regions of the country, Haiti’s emergency disaster agency warned.
The violence is having serious consequences and ripple effects on the economy and the humanitarian response in terms of access to the southern peninsula — the anticipated route for Elsa. It has been cut off from the capital because of the gang violence.
Since June 1, more than 16,000 Haitians from poor, working-class neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince have been forced to flee their homes because of armed conflict between rival gangs.
The Office of Civil Protection said all teams and structures were mobilized, and discussing how to address the emergency response if needed. Elsa had the possibility of entering the southeast of Haiti or brush Haiti, he and others warned.
“Regardless of the scenario all of the southern coast of Haiti has the possibility of being affected by violent winds,” Esterlin Marcelin of Haiti’s Hydro-Meteorological Service said during a press conference.
At 10 a.m. Haiti had already registered rainfall in several regional departments across its mountainous terrain. Hurricane Elsa was 186 miles from the commune of Anse-à-Pitres along the Haitian-Dominican border in the southeast.
In addition to preparing for the impending hurricane, Haitian emergency personnel were still trying to deal with an aircraft accident Saturday after a single-engine airplane crashed Friday night, killing all six persons on board. The plane was en route to the town of Jacmel in southeast, Haiti.
Cuba is also watching the storm closely, as Elsa is predicted to move across the island starting on Sunday. Civil defense authorities issued a tropical storm warning for the provinces of Camagüey, Granma, Guantanamo, Holguin, Las Tunas, and Santiago de Cuba, and a tropical storm watch for the provinces of Ciego de Avila, Sancti Spiritus, Villa Clara, Cienfuegos, and Matanzas.
“Tropical storm conditions and dangerous storm surge are expected with hurricane conditions possible in eastern Cuba beginning early Sunday, with tropical storm conditions possible in Central Cuba Sunday night and Monday,” the National Hurricane Center said in its advisory.
Cuban leader Miguel Díaz-Canel tweeted early Saturday that Cubans must stay alert in the next three days as Elsa approaches while the island grapples with a sharp increase in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases.
“The order is to prepare. Let’s take care of our lives and our assets. Together we can do it,” he wrote.
Even as Elsa lost speed early Saturday, meteorologists are warning that water temperatures around Haiti and Cuba are very warm, which could give Elsa a boost.
“Water temperatures in the vicinity of Haiti and Cuba are TOASTY,” Brian McNoldy, a University of Miami Rosenstiel senior research associate, wrote on Twitter. ”It will pass over those 29oC+ waters starting Sunday morning.”