Cuba evacuates more than 100,000 as Tropical Storm Elsa skirts southern provinces

·6 min read

After skirting Cuba’s southern provinces of Guantanamo, Santiago de Cuba and Granma, Tropical Storm Elsa was moving away from the island’s southern coast Sunday evening after dumping heavy rain and lashing Jamaica and the southern coast of Haiti, where its strong wind gusts crushed crops. Two deaths were reported in the Dominican Republic and one in St. Lucia.

The government of Cuba discontinued a hurricane watch for the Cuban provinces of Guantanamo, Holguin, and Santiago de Cuba, the National Hurricane Center said in its 8 p.m. advisory. Jamaica also discontinued its tropical storm warning.

As of 8:30 p.m. Sunday, there were no reports of damage to agriculture or infrastructure, Cuban leader Miguel Díaz-Canel said on Twitter.

Cuba ordered the evacuation of more than 100,000 people from low-lying areas and places with high risk of landslides as the storm is expected to cross the island on Monday. Earlier on Sunday, strong winds were registered in southern areas from Guantanamo to Cabo Cruz, on the western extreme of Granma province.

A tropical storm warning was still in effect for the Cuban provinces of Camagüey, Granma, Guantanamo, Holguin, Las Tunas, Santiago de Cuba, Ciego de Avila, Sancti Spiritus, VillaClara, Cienfuegos, Matanzas, Mayabeque and Havana, according to the advisory.

Elsa’s slow speed is expected to continue through Monday, with a turn toward the north-northwest predicted Tuesday. The storm is forecast to continue to move near or over eastern Cuba on Sunday evening, and to approach central Cuba late Sunday or early Monday. Elsa is expected to move across central and western Cuba and head toward the Florida Straits on Monday. Maximum sustained winds were near 60 mph with higher gusts, according to the advisory.

But because the storm is moving over very warm water, with temperatures reaching as much as 90 degrees, it could strengthen overnight, said Rick Knabb, former director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami and current on-air hurricane expert on the Weather Channel.

Impacts to coastal southwest Florida and parts of the Florida Keys, which are under a tropical storm watch, will depend on its strength and condition after the storm crosses Cuba, which was bracing for heavy rain and powerful gusts. Though sometimes struggling to remain organized, Elsa still left widespread damage in the eastern Caribbean.

Southeast Florida, although not totally out of the woods yet, was likely looking at lesser effects than previously imagined, when hurricane models couldn’t decide whether Elsa would go east or west of the peninsula after crossing the Florida Straits.

As of Sunday night, the hurricane center remained steady on its prediction that Elsa will scrape the southwestern edge of the state on Monday and Tuesday, with a landfall as a relatively strong tropical storm somewhere near Inglis, south of Cedar Key, on Wednesday morning.

Miami-Dade and Broward remained squarely out of the cone of uncertainty Sunday evening. The National Weather Service predicted that Miami could see 20 mph sustained winds with 26 mph gusts on Monday and Tuesday, along with an inch or two of rain.

In the Caribbean, more than 5 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. The tropical storm warning remained in effect as the risk of flooding and possible landslides were still high, the Division said in a statement Sunday afternoon.

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.

As the center of the storm neared northeastern Jamaica Sunday morning before moving to portions of eastern Cuba, Jamaica’s Meteorological Service warned the population that rainfall, including heavy showers and thunderstorms, would continue to spread across most parishes.

“Flash flooding is likely in low-lying and floor prone areas today with 3 to 6 inches of rainfall in the forecast,” the Meteorological Service said in an advisory. “Strong winds, reaching to near tropical-storm force, are also expected during at least the next 6-12 hours.”

Jamaica’s Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management and police force said they received reports of flooded, impassable roads in Kingston, Portmore and St. Thomas parish.

“Members of the public are being reminded to stay indoors,” the disaster office said.

In Cuba, families that live in Granma’s low-lying areas in communities such as Madresita, Las Mangas and Guasimilla were moved to 37,000 homes designated as shelters, according to a report in state media news service Cubadebate.

In the central city of Holguin, about 78,000 people were transported from high-risk areas to shelters or to the homes of family members in areas considered safer, according to the report. Earlier Sunday, more than 35,000 people were evacuated from coastal areas in the easternmost province of Guantanamo to the homes of family members located on higher ground, the report said.

Authorities were concerned about large gatherings in shelters as Cuba is struggling to contain a spike in COVID-19 infections. The island is facing its deadliest week since the start of the pandemic, breaching the threshold of 3,000 deaths 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 Saturday Cuba reported 3,475 confirmed cases and 15 deaths, according to the Public Health Ministry.

Cuba’s eastern regions registered heavy rainfall Sunday morning and early afternoon, according to the meteorological institute Insmet. In Santiago de Cuba province, home to the island’s second most populous city, 11 reservoirs that are used to supply the region with drinking water were filling up, and some reached around 80% of capacity at midday Sunday, the Hydraulic Resources Institute said.

In the aftermath of Tropical Storm Elsa, workers with the Office of Civil Protection intervened in the southwestern city of Les Cayes Sunday to clear streets of fallen trees and restore traffic.
In the aftermath of Tropical Storm Elsa, workers with the Office of Civil Protection intervened in the southwestern city of Les Cayes Sunday to clear streets of fallen trees and restore traffic.

As Elsa moved away from Hispaniola, authorities in the Dominican Republic had 15 provinces, mostly concentrated toward the south, on alert because of concerns over possible flooding in rivers and other bodies of water. There is a new high-pressure system that will “dominate the meteorological conditions”, said the Dominican Republic’s Emergency Operations Center.

In a late Sunday morning report. Dominican authorities said that 51 homes had been partially affected, and one home had been destroyed as a result of Elsa.

Emergency management officials also advised small and medium-sized vessels to stick to the coasts because of “abnormal” ocean.

In Haiti, initial reports suggest that the storm did not cause the kind of damage the storm left behind in the eastern Caribbean, where it downed trees, took down power lines and caused roof damage to more than 550 houses in Barbados.

The agency reported that three people were injured in the commune of Fond Verrettes as a result of falling trees. Also, 22 houses were damaged, including 15 in the Nippes region and seven in the Central Plateau. There were also reports of rivers flooding.

Haiti’s agriculture did take “a serious blow” because of the wind gusts, said Jerry Chandler, the head of the Office of Civil Protection, the emergency response agency.

“There were strong winds overnight,” he said.

Miami Herald staff writers Devoun Cetoute and Alex Harris contributed to this report.