Hurricane Elsa raced towards Haiti and the Dominican Republic on Saturday, threatening to unleash flooding and landslides before heading for Cuba and Florida.
The category 1 storm was about 110 miles east-south-east of Isla Beata, Dominican Republic, moving west-north-west at 31mph. It had maximum sustained winds of 75mph and was expected to become a tropical storm after hitting Cuba, according to the US National Hurricane Center in Miami.
The long-term forecast showed it heading toward Florida as a tropical storm by Tuesday, but some models would carry it into the Gulf or up the Atlantic coast.
In Haiti, authorities urged people to evacuate if they lived near water or mountain flanks.
“The whole country is threatened by this hurricane,” the Civil Protection Agency (CPA) said. “Make every effort to escape before it’s too late.”
Haiti is vulnerable to floods and landslides because of erosion and deforestation. A recent surge in gang violence has forced thousands to flee their homes and authorities are running low on basic items including food and water, CPA director Jerry Chandler told the Associated Press.
“It’s been three weeks that we’ve been supporting families who are running away from gang violence,” he said. “We are working at renewing our stocks, but the biggest problem is logistics.”
He said officials were trying to figure out how to deliver supplies to the south, which is bracing for Elsa. People were buying water and food.
“I’m protecting myself the best that I can,” said Darlene Jean-Pierre, 35, as she bought six jugs of water and vegetables and fruit. “Civil Protection is not going to do that for me … I have to worry about gangs fighting. In addition to this, we have a hurricane. I don’t know what kind of catastrophe this is going to cause.”
A hurricane warning was issued for Jamaica and from the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince to Punta Palenque in the Dominican Republic. A hurricane watch was in effect for the Cuban provinces of Camagüey, Granma, Guantánamo, Holguín, Las Tunas and Santiago de Cuba. Some provinces have high numbers of Covid-19 infections, raising concerns the storm could force large groups of people to seek shelter together.
“Anticipating is the key word,” said the Cuban president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, adding that vaccination efforts would continue. “Let’s take care of lives and property.”
In the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, authorities opened more than 2,400 shelters. Elsa was forecast to brush past the southernmost point of Hispaniola by Saturday afternoon and then head for southern Haiti.
The storm ripped off roofs, destroyed crops and downed trees and power lines in the eastern Caribbean on Friday, with damage reported in Barbados, St Lucia and St Vincent and the Grenadines, which suffered volcanic eruptions in April. At least 43 homes and three police stations were damaged, said the St Vincent prime minister, Ralph Gonsalves.
“We expect that this number will increase as reports keep coming in,” he said. “We have some damage, but it could have been far worse.”
Elsa is the first hurricane of the Atlantic season and the earliest fifth-named storm on record. It is forecast to drop 4in to 8in of rain with maximums of 15in across portions of Hispaniola and Jamaica.