Tropical Storm Elsa made landfall at 11 a.m. Wednesday on Florida’s northern Gulf Coast, about 65 miles north-northwest of Cedar Key. At landfall, Elsa, with 65 mph winds and a central pressure of 999 mb, was headed north at 14 mph. An unofficial weather station at Horseshoe Beach, Florida, measured a sustained wind of 62 mph, gusting to 71 mph, just before landfall. Peak winds at Cedar Key on Wednesday morning were 44 mph, gusting to 59 mph.

Figure 1. Radar view of Tropical Storm Elsa at 11:15 a.m. EDT Wednesday, July 7, 2021, as the storm was making landfall along the northern Florida Gulf Coast. (Image credit: Weather Underground, an IBM company)

The main impact of Elsa on Florida was from its heavy rains, which caused flash flooding and river flooding. Roads were flooded on Wednesday morning in Lee, Manatee, and Sarasota Counties, where stalled bands of thunderstorms dumped heavy rains. Rainfall amounts of 7 to 9 inches were reported in Lee County, according to the National Weather Service.

Moderate flooding was occurring at one river gauge in Florida on Wednesday morning, on the Manatee River. The Southeast River Forecast Center predicted that moderate flooding would occur at six additional river gauges in Florida later this week.

Approximately 23,000 customers were without power in Florida as of 1 p.m. EDT Wednesday, according to poweroutage.us.

An EF0 tornado touched down near Columbia, Florida, on Tuesday, causing damage to a house.

Figure 2. Estimated 24-hour rainfall amounts ending at 8 a.m. EDT Wednesday, July 7, 2021. Elsa dumped maximum rainfall amounts in excess of 10 inches (white colors) in a small area north of Fort Myers. (Image credit: NOAA)

One of the most serious impacts of the storm occurred in the waters 26 miles southeast of Key West, Florida, where a vessel carrying 22 Cubans capsized, leaving nine people missing. The ship left Cuba on Monday night; the Coast Guard performed the rescues on Tuesday afternoon, when winds were gusting to tropical storm-force in the area.

Elsa brought a storm surge of about 2 feet to Naples and Fort Myers, and 1-2 feet to Tampa Bay. The highest storm surge from the storm (as of 11:30 a.m. EDT Wednesday) was 2.56 feet at Cedar Key, Florida. This level is just beyond the threshold for minor coastal flooding.

Elsa already the third U.S. landfalling storm of 2021

Elsa was the Atlantic’s record-earliest fifth named storm of the season, and already the third named storm to make landfall in the U.S. this year, following Danny (South Carolina) and Claudette (Louisiana). The storm puts 2021 ahead of the record year for total U.S. landfalls, the 2020 hurricane season, when the third U.S. landfall (Fay in New Jersey) occurred on July 10. Last year had a record 11 named storms make landfall in the contiguous U.S., beating the old record of nine set in 1916. The fourth U.S. landfall of 2020 (Hanna in Texas) occurred on July 25. The record-earliest third landfall in the U.S. is held by Hurricane Three of 1886, which hit Florida on June 30.

Over the 71-year period 1950-2020, the U.S. averaged three landfalling tropical storms (with one being a hurricane) per year, according to https://tropicalstormrisk.com/, so 2021 has already had an average season’s worth of landfalling storms. On average, approximately 91% of the Atlantic’s named storms occur after July 7; the average peak date of the season (September 10) is still over two months away.

Elsa’s long rampage through the Caribbean

Elsa caused damage in at least seven nations. Hardest-hit were Barbados, where more than 1,100 homes were damaged, including 62 that collapsed; St. Lucia, where one person was killed and over $12 million in agricultural damage occurred; and the Dominican Republic, where two people died after walls collapsed on them. Haiti reported three people were injured by downed trees during Elsa’s passage; considerable road damage occurred in Jamaica and Cuba from flash flooding.

Figure 3. Predicted 3-day rainfall for Tropical Storm Elsa through 8 a.m. EDT Saturday, July 10, from the National Hurricane Center.

Forecast for Elsa

Elsa is expected to weaken as it moves inland over Florida and Georgia on Wednesday, and the storm will gradually perform an arcing turn to the northeast and accelerate. Flash flooding from heavy rains will be a concern along Elsa’s entire path up the U.S. East Coast. A few tornadoes could also occur along the southeast U.S. coast on Wednesday; NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center placed a portion of northeastern Florida, coastal Georgia, and coastal South Carolina in its “Slight Risk” area for tornadoes on Wednesday.

Figure 4. Predicted peak wind gusts in knots (multiply by 1.15 to convert to mph) for Tropical Storm Elsa through Saturday, July 10, from the 6Z Wednesday, July 7, run of the GFS model. Wind gusts in excess of tropical storm-force (34 knots, yellow colors) were predicted to affect much of the U.S. East Coast and Canadian Maritimes. (Image credit: weathermodels.com)

After Elsa emerges over the Atlantic off the Virginia coast on Thursday night, the storm could briefly regain tropical-storm status, crossing over or near Cape Cod, Massachusetts, as a tropical storm with 40-45 mph winds. Elsa is likely to transition to a post-tropical cyclone and bring 40-45 mph winds to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, Canada, on Friday night and Saturday.

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Jeff Masters

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...