Tropical Storm Elsa made landfall in Cuba’s central region on Monday afternoon, bearing down on the island as it struggles with a spike in COVID-19 cases and shortages of food and other basic necessities amid the deepest economic crisis in over three decades.
Local forecasters said the storm, which hit Cuba about 85 miles southeast of Havana near the Bay of Pigs at around 2 p.m. Monday, was bringing strong wind and heavy rainfall that had already soaked areas in the south of the island. Rainfall of 5 to 10 inches was expected for central areas with a maximum of 15 inches forecast in some isolated locations, which could lead to flash flooding and mudslides, Cuba’s Meteorological Institute INSMET said.
“Conditions are deteriorating really fast in Ciénaga de Zapta,” Daeris Yoel Reyes Perez wrote on Facebook at around 5 p.m., next to photos of heavy rainfall and a flooded road in the region southeast of Havana, in Matanzas province.
The National Hurricane Center said in its 5 p.m. advisory that Elsa was moving over western Cuba and soaking the region with heavy rains. More than 100,000 people have been evacuated from low-lying areas and in cities in Cuba’s mountainous regions, which are more vulnerable to mudslides. Elsa has also done some damage to crops in Cuba’s Granma and Cienfuegos provinces, though the extent of losses is still unclear. The storm, which is still moving northwest at about 14 miles per hour, is expected to exit the island Monday evening and move into the Florida Straits, passing near the Florida Keys early Tuesday.
Over the past few days Elsa battered the eastern Caribbean island nations of Barbados, Dominican Republic and St. Lucia, and crushed crops in Haiti. Two people died in the Dominican Republic and one death was reported in St. Lucia.
In Havana, hundreds of people were evacuated from buildings that are considered unsafe, especially in older areas of the city, the Civil Defense office said. Officials fear gusty winds could topple some structures that have fallen into disrepair.
In the coastal city of Cienfuegos in the province of the same name, video images of strong rainfall were posted on a local Facebook group, but there were no reports of flooding.
Cuban civil defense authorities reported some damage to agriculture in the southern Granma province, where rain soaked fields where vegetables hadn’t been harvested yet. With Cuba already experiencing a severe food shortage, Elsa could pose yet more challenges for the island, which is struggling with mismanagement, a painful currency reform and the deepening effects of Trump-era sanctions that severely reduced remittances and direct investment. Cuba’s economy contracted 11% in 2020.
State-run television earlier Monday showed images of farmers harvesting fruits and vegetables in Granma province to save them from the storm. Images from the capital, Havana, showed local markets being stocked with rice and mangoes over the weekend, ahead of the storm. Local press reports said people would have access to enough food to hunker down at home while Elsa passed.
And then there’s the COVID-19 pandemic. Cuba is facing its deadliest period since the start of the pandemic, breaching the threshold of 3,000 cases per day last Wednesday and registering 20 deaths in a single day on Thursday, also a record high in the island of 11 million. On Monday, Cuba said a new record of 3,519 cases were confirmed, and 14 deaths.
President Miguel Díaz-Canel asked people to remain vigilant and follow storm preparedness guidelines. He has asked repeatedly for people to respect social distancing even if sheltering in the homes of family members or at public shelters as COVID-19 cases continue to rise. On Monday, public health authorities imposed new lockdown measures in high-transmission areas such as the city of Camagüey in central Cuba.
In the Caribbean, more than five inches of rain had fallen in at least one location in Jamaica as of late Sunday morning and video images showed heavy flooding in Kingston, according to the Jamaican government’s Meteorological Service Division.
In the neighboring Dominican Republic, the storm was responsible for at least two deaths, the country’s Emergency Operations Center said, after two people were crushed by a collapsed wall in two separate incidents Saturday. Another death was reported in St. Lucia after Elsa battered the eastern Caribbean as a Category 1 hurricane on Friday.