Tropical Storm Elsa continued to be disorganized on Sunday, but is predicted to be near hurricane strength when it makes landfall in central Cuba on Monday morning, the National Hurricane Center said in its 11 a.m. EDT Sunday advisory. Elsa had slowed down significantly since Saturday, and was headed west-northwest at 12 mph, with top winds of 60 mph and a central pressure of 1009 mb – a very high reading for a storm this strong. Heavy rains from the storm were affecting Cuba, Jamaica, and the Cayman Islands; the outer rainbands of Elsa will spread into the Florida Keys on Monday and move northwards into central Florida by Monday evening. Tropical storm warnings were up for the Florida Keys on Sunday.

On Saturday afternoon, 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, and one other person was killed on St. Lucia after the storm brought high winds and flooding rains to the Lesser Antilles islands on Friday.

Satellite imagery on Sunday afternoon revealed that Elsa was positioned in the narrow channel between Jamaica and Cuba, and was struggling to grow more organized. The low-level circulation center was no longer exposed to view, and the heavy thunderstorms were growing quite intense, with cold cloud tops, indicating that they extended high into the atmosphere. However, the heaviest thunderstorms were located away from the center, and data from the Hurricane Hunters found that Elsa was poorly aligned vertically. This lack of alignment was inhibiting intensification, as was interaction with the islands of Jamaica and Cuba.

Figure 1. Predicted wind speed (colors) and sea level pressure (black lines) for Tropical Storm Elsa for 8 a.m. EDT (12Z) Monday, July 5, from the 6Z Sunday, July 4, run of the HMON model. The model predicted Elsa would be making landfall in central Cuba as a tropical storm with 65 mph winds and a central pressure of 1003 mb. (Image credit: Tropical Tidbits)

Forecast for Elsa

As it progresses west-northwest through Monday, Elsa will have favorable conditions for development, though interaction with the high terrain of Jamaica and Cuba may interfere. Elsa is expected to maintain a relatively slow forward speed of 10-15 mph through Monday, which should help the storm become better aligned vertically. Sea surface temperatures will be a very warm 30 degrees Celsius (86°F), the atmosphere will be moist, and wind shear will be moderate, at 10-20 knots. However, the 12Z Sunday run of the SHIPS model gave only a 9% chance that Elsa would rapidly intensify by 35 mph in the 24 hours ending at 8 a.m. EDT Monday; the National Hurricane Center predicted a 10 mph increase in Elsa’s winds by Monday morning, putting it at 70 mph – just below hurricane strength.

Figure 2. Track forecasts out to five days (120 hours) for Tropical Storm Elsa from the 12Z (8 a.m. EDT) Sunday, July 4, runs of some of the reliable hurricane tracking models. Considerable uncertainty still existed where on Florida’s Gulf Coast Elsa might make landfall. (Image credit: Tropical Tidbits)

Elsa primarily a heavy rain threat to Florida

Elsa is expected to make landfall in central Cuba on Monday morning, and spend about 12 hours crossing over the island. There is some fairly mountainous terrain with elevations in excess of 1500 feet where Elsa is expected to cross, and passage over Cuba is likely to significantly disrupt the storm.

Elsa is likely to be a disorganized tropical storm with 55-65 mph winds when it emerges into the Florida Straits on Monday night. At that point, steering currents favor a northerly track at about 10 mph, which will give Elsa less than two days over warm water to re-intensify. Conditions should be moderately favorable for development, with the waters a warm 29 degrees Celsius (84°F), wind shear a moderate 15-20 knots, and the atmosphere moist. However, Elsa will likely need more time than that to reorganize into a hurricane, and the Saturday morning runs of the reliable intensity models were showing only a 5-10 mph increase in Elsa’s winds Monday night through Wednesday morning. Elsa will most likely be a rainy, messy tropical storm with top winds of 55-70 mph when it makes its landfall along the Gulf Coast of Florida on Tuesday night or Wednesday morning. Heavy rains of 2-6 inches will be the main threat from the storm in Florida.

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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...