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Elsa becomes a hurricane as it approaches the Caribbean - Florida impacts still unclear

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Hurricane force gusts were measured this morning on the island of Barbados as Elsa makes its final approach to the Caribbean Sea, so the storm is officially designated Hurricane Elsa. July 2nd is more than a month earlier than the long-term average date the first hurricane forms.

Hurricane Warnings have now been issued for the affected Caribbean islands.

This does NOT appear to be a dramatic strengthening trend as the road ahead still appears a bit bumpy, at least in the short term. But it is a reminder that intensity forecasting is not a precise science. The best we can do is look for general trends.

The center of the storm is passing over the southeastern Caribbean islands today bringing very gusty winds and some intense rainfall, which will cause flooding in some areas and the possibility of mudslides. Even in Puerto Rico, well north of the track, there is a risk of flooding. The storm is moving briskly, however, so it won’t linger.

Hurricane Elsa will be in the Caribbean later today heading toward the southern coast of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. A Hurricane Watch is in effect for the Haitian coast just in case Elsa’s intensity stays at or near hurricane strength.

The most reliable computer forecast models continue to be in violent disagreement about Tropical Storm Elsa’s track and strength after Saturday when it will be making its initial move in the general direction of Florida or the Bahamas. Until then, Elsa is pretty much on its predicted course.

So tomorrow, Elsa will approach the Dominican Republic and Haiti. The National Hurricane Center is keeping the storm fairly strong, near hurricane strength, but the signals are conflicting. Storms that move as quickly as Elsa often have trouble strengthening too much, and certainly not dramatically. The upper and lower-level parts of the storm often get out of sync, among other issues.

By late tomorrow, the high-pressure area that has been propelling Elsa west and holding it to the south will be backing off and an unusually strong dip in the jet stream over the eastern U.S. will be opening a door to the north. Without the strong high to drive it, Elsa’s forward speed should be slowing down.

At this point, the reliable computer forecast models disagree on how hostile or supportive the upper-level winds will be. Models that predict a relatively weak storm due to a hostile environment generally Elsa north over the southern Bahamas and out to sea, or some swing a weak remnant into the western Gulf. Models that predict that Elsa will be able to continue to strengthen, generally forecast a track into the Gulf dangerously near the west coast of the Lower Keys and the west coast of Florida – with Elsa becoming a hurricane.

Whether Elsa tracks over the high mountains of the Dominican Republic, Haiti, or eastern Cuba is also an important factor.

The National Hurricane Center forecast is a compromise of the computer-forecast tracks because there is no obvious reason to think that one or the other is most likely.

The bottom line is, it is impossible to know how the storm will affect the Florida peninsula, except that we have confidence that the impacts, whatever they are going to be, will occur on Monday and Tuesday.

Watches and Warnings will probably be issued for Florida tomorrow, if it looks like the storm will have a significant impact on the state.

If it turns out that Elsa becomes a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico, it could be a significant threat. The storm will eventually arc east as it moves north, so the very vulnerable coastline from Naples to north of Tampa/St. Petersburg would be threatened.

And of course, we would be concerned about the Keys as well. But any one path is a low odds event at this point.

Everyone in Florida needs to stay in very close touch with the forecasts. If the American GFS forecast model turns out to be right and Elsa threads the needle in the Caribbean and arrives in the Gulf as an intensifying hurricane, it could have a significant impact on the populated areas along the entire west coast. It is only one of a number of possible scenarios, but it is a very dangerous one.

If Elsa brings heavy rain to the peninsula, that will fall on top of the continuous rain we’ve had recently, which could obviously cause flooding if the heavy rain lingers.

There is nothing to do at this point beyond preparing and staying informed. Unfortunately, this is happening over a holiday weekend, but Mother Nature clearly doesn’t care about our Fourth of July plans. Just be sure you don’t get surprised because all this might come on quickly on Monday.


About the Author:

Bryan Norcross is currently a hurricane specialist at Local 10 News, the station where he began his stretch on television in Miami in 1983.