Tropical storm warnings, storm surge warnings, and hurricane watches are up for much of Florida’s western coast as Tropical Storm Elsa heads for an expected landfall Wednesday morning in the state’s Big Bend area. At 11 a.m. EDT Tuesday, Elsa was located 65 miles west-northwest of Key West, headed north-northwest at 10 mph with top winds of 60 mph and a central pressure of 1007 mb. Heavy rains and wind gusts in excess of tropical storm force were affecting portions of the Florida Keys: Key West recorded sustained winds of 43 mph, gusting to 59 mph, at 10:02 a.m. EDT. Sand Key, located just west of Key West, reported sustained winds of 53 mph, gusting to 63 mph, at 9:50 a.m. EDT. Nine personal weather stations in the Weather Underground network in Key West picked up 4-7” of rain between midnight and 12:30 p.m. EDT Tuesday.

Satellite imagery on Tuesday afternoon revealed that Elsa was lopsided, with the circulation center exposed to view with no heavy thunderstorms on the west side of the center. Strong upper-level winds out of the west were creating a moderate 10-20 knots of wind shear and driving dry air on Elsa’s west side into its core, disrupting the storm. Radar imagery showed that Elsa had built about 50% of an eyewall on the northeast side of the circulation center, but the wind shear and dry air on Elsa’s west side were preventing the storm from closing off a complete circular eyewall and forming an eye.

Figure 1. Visible satellite image of Elsa at 11:30 a.m. EDT Tuesday, July 6, 2021. (Image credit: NOAA/RAMMB/Colorado State University)

Elsa’s long rampage through the Caribbean

On Monday afternoon, Elsa made landfall in central Cuba with 60 mph winds, and crossed over the country in about eight hours before emerging into the Florida Straits just east of Havana. Elsa weakened to 50 mph winds while crossing Cuba, bringing 24-hour rainfall amounts in excess of 200 mm (eight inches) to two stations. According to teleSUR, Elsa did not severely affect the country.

On Sunday, Elsa passed just north of Jamaica, bringing torrential rains of 3-5 inches to the capital of Kingston. The Jamaica Gleaner reported severe flash flooding and considerable road damage in Jamaica.

On Saturday, Elsa sped along the south coast of Hispaniola, bringing heavy rains and high surf to the coasts of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Two people were killed by collapsing walls in the Dominican Republic, reported; Haiti escaped significant flooding from Elsa. On Friday, Elsa passed through the Lesser Antilles islands as a category 1 hurricane with 75 mph winds, killing one person on St. Lucia. Agricultural damage in St. Lucia was estimated at $12.5 million.

Figure 2. Predicted 3-day rainfall for Tropical Storm Elsa through 8 a.m. EDT Friday, July 9, from the National Hurricane Center.

Forecast for Elsa

Elsa is expected to maintain a forward speed of 10-15 mph and gradually perform an arcing turn to the north-northeast over the next day, resulting in a landfall north of Tampa in Florida’s Big Bend region on Wednesday morning. The waters Elsa will traverse are warm, with sea surface temperatures of 29 degrees Celsius (84°F).  Wind shear will be a moderate 10-20 knots, though, which will continue to interfere with development by driving dry air on Elsa’s west side into its circulation. Together, these conditions are favorable only for slow development. The top intensity models on Tuesday morning called for, at most, a five-mph increase in Elsa’s winds before landfall in Florida; the National Hurricane Center predicted a 10-mph increase, putting it at 70 mph at landfall – just below hurricane strength. Their higher intensity forecast may reflect the latest output from the usually-reliable European model, whose 6Z Tuesday run predicted Elsa would have top winds of 70-75 mph at 8 a.m. EDT Wednesday.

Figure 3. Predicted peak wind gust in knots (multiply by 1.15 to convert to mph) for Tropical Storm Elsa through Friday, July 9, from the 6Z Tuesday, July 6, run of the GFS model. Wind gusts in excess of tropical storm-force (34 knots, yellow colors) were predicted to affect much of western Florida and portions of coastal Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. (Image credit:

Heavy rains, damaging winds, storm surge flooding, and a few tornadoes for Florida

Elsa is expected to bring all of the dangerous impacts typically seen in a strong tropical storm to western Florida, including flash flooding from 3-5 inches of rain, coastal flooding from a 1- to 4-foot storm surge (and up to 5 feet in Tampa Bay), strong wind gusts in excess of 50 mph, and perhaps also a few tornadoes. On Monday night, a tornado warning was issued for Miami-Dade County based on a radar-detected signature, but no confirmed tornado touched down. NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center has placed a large portion of western Florida in their “Slight Risk” area for tornadoes on Tuesday.

Elsa is expected to weaken to a tropical depression as it moves inland over Florida and Georgia on Wednesday, but it could briefly regain tropical-storm status as it moves off the mid-Atlantic coast on Thursday night. Elsa will then accelerate northeastward as a post-tropical cyclone with 40-45 mph winds, affecting Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, Canada, on Friday and Saturday.

Bob Henson contributed to this post.

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Jeff Masters, Ph.D., worked as a hurricane scientist with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990. After a near-fatal flight into category 5 Hurricane Hugo, he left the Hurricane Hunters to pursue a...