July 5 (UPI) -- Residents of the Southeast were preparing for Tropical Storm Elsa on Monday as tropical storm warnings were posted across the Florida Keys.
Tropical storm warnings were in effect for the west coast of Florida from Flamingo to Englewood with a tropical storm watch issued in the state from the Anclote River to the Aucilla River, including Tampa Bay. A storm surge watch is also in effect for the west coast of Florida from Bonita Beach to the Sunwannee River.
Elsa -- which is predicted to impact Florida and portions of the Southeast as less than one on the AccuWeather RealImpact™ Scale for Hurricanes -- is expected to make landfall north of Tampa on Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning. On Monday, the storm was charging toward Cuba with landfall forecast for later that afternoon after leaving devastation behind and causing three fatalities across the Caribbean.
Just a day after undergoing rapid intensification and becoming the first hurricane of the 2021 Atlantic hurricane season, Elsa returned to tropical storm status on Saturday as it charged between southwestern Haiti and Jamaica. It's the third storm out of five named to pose a threat to the U.S. coast.
In its 5 a.m. EDT Monday advisory, the National Hurricane Center said Elsa was about 110 miles east-southeast of Cayo Largo, Cuba, and about 220 miles southeast of Havana, with sustained winds of 65 mph and moving toward the northwest at 14 mph.
"On the forecast track, Elsa is expected to move across central and western Cuba later today and pass near the Florida Keys early Tuesday," the advisory said. "Elsa is then forecast to move near or over portions of the west coast of Florida on Tuesday and Wednesday."
The forecasters said it expected conditions to further deteriorate over central and western Cuba on Monday morning as it approached the island nation.
A hurricane warning was in effect for the Cuban provinces of Cienfuegos and Matanzas while a hurricane watch was issued for the province of Camaguey.
Meanwhile, the provinces of Camaguey, Ciego de Avila, Sancti Spiritus, Villa Clara, Mayabeque and Havana were under tropical storm warnings as was the Florida Keys.
Rainfall is forecast to diminish across Hispaniola and Jamaica on Sunday as Elsa moves into Cuba.
"The impacts from Elsa on the United States will likely depend on how the storm does over Cuba," said AccuWeather Meteorologist Thomas Geiger.
Geiger predicts Elsa will skirt just south of Cuba before turning north and moving over the island. A small shift in Elsa's path would cause it to move northwest over Cuba for a longer period of time.
"The longer that Elsa travels over the warm Caribbean water, more likely the storm will maintain high-end tropical storm strength," said Geiger.
Warmer water, like that of the Caribbean, fuels and strengthens tropical systems, while the friction that occurs when moving over land can weaken tropical systems.
After crossing Cuba, Elsa is forecast to shrink in size as it moves into the Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday, which would keep a majority of the hazards to the western side of Florida, according to Geiger. The storm is expected to trek up along the western Florida coast before making landfall north of Tampa Bay.
Elsa is anticipated to produce its heaviest rainfall totals of 4 to 8 inches, with an AccuWeather Local StormMax™ of 15 inches, across portions of Cuba and Florida.
"Mountainous areas over the western Caribbean will be most susceptible to flash flooding and mudslides," said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Paul Walker.
As Elsa curves to the north early this week, rain is anticipated to spread into Florida and the rest of the southeastern United States. Rain over the southeastern U.S., especially areas that have 4 to 8 inches of rain, may cause flash flooding from Florida into southern South Carolina. A wide swath of at least 1 to 2 inches will spread from the Florida Peninsula into the Carolinas.
Tampa is among the locales expected to be doused by 2 to 4 inches of rain, in addition to a storm surge of 1 to 3 feet anticipated, Geiger explained. Winds can gust up to 40 to 60 mph.
In preparation of the storm, MacDill Air Forcer Base in Tampa, Florida began evacuations, according to a reporter. On Tuesday, the base will have limited access to "mission essential personnel only."
Winds near where the center of the storm tracks in Cuba can reach 60-80 mph with an AccuWeather Local StormMax™ of 120 mph, according to Walker. These winds can bring damage to structures, along with downed trees and power lines.
AccuWeather meteorologists have rated Elsa a 2 on the AccuWeather RealImpact™ Scale for Hurricanes for the Caribbean due to the expected flooding, damaging winds and storm surge. The scale is a six-point scale with ratings that range from less than 1 to 1 to 5.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a state of emergency for 15 counties across the state ahead of landfall in the United States. Charlotte, Citrus, Collier, DeSoto, Hardee, Hernando, Hillsborough, Lee, Levy, Manatee, Miami-Dade, Monroe, Pasco, Pinellas and Sarasota counties are all included under the state of emergency.
One of these counties, Miami-Dade, is where a condominium collapsed, killing at least 20 people and leaving over 120 others unaccounted for.
"All visitors should heed local evacuation orders if those orders are issued," said DeSantis.
Tampa's Mayor Jane Castor suggested residents clean up around their yards and make sure there aren't any loose items around that could get blown by high winds.
"Now's the time we're starting to make a lot of those phone calls with different agencies just to make sure that if we did have to respond quickly in the next couple of days, everything is in place so that we could get moving and get people to safety quickly," said Pinellas County Government Spokesperson Josh Boatwright.
The U.S. Coast Guard has set Port Condition X-Ray for the ports of Key West and Miami, meaning sustained gale force winds between 39 and 73 mph are expected within 48 hours. The ports remain open to commercial traffic but the Coast Guard warned that "drawbridges may not be operating if sustained winds reach 25 mph or when an evacuation is in progress."
AccuWeather forecasters urge residents to have an evacuation plan and prepare an emergency or hurricane kit, stocked with water, non-perishable food, chargers for electronics, batteries and a way to get information, like the AccuWeather App.
"One of the more recent hurricanes with a path that could remotely resemble Elsa's projection near Florida, was Irma from September 2017," said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Alex Sosnowski.
Irma reached the Florida Keys and southwestern Florida as a potent Category 4 hurricane. The hurricane pushed northward on Florida's west coast and caused 10 fatalities and $50 billion in damages in the U.S. with power outages that reached 7.5 million in Florida alone, according to the NHC.
"Elsa should lose wind intensity and become a tropical depression quite quickly once it makes landfall due to interaction with the land," said Geiger.
However, it may restrengthen as it exits the East Coast into the Atlantic Ocean and could bring some rough surf, strong winds and rain to the Cape and Islands of Massachusetts as well as Nova Scotia at the end of the week.