By Octavio Jones
VENICE BEACH, Fla. (Reuters) -Tropical Storm Elsa was picking up windspeed over the Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday, drenching the Florida Keys on its northward march towards a possible hurricane-force landfall along Florida’s Gulf Coast on Wednesday morning.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) said in a Tuesday advisory that the center of Elsa was about 180 miles south of Tampa, Florida, and was moving north at around 9 mph (15 kph), with maximum sustained winds of around 70 mph (110 kph). A storm becomes a hurricane when it packs sustained winds of 74 mph.
The wind was picking up, the NHC said, and tropical storm-force winds extended outward 70 miles from the storm’s center.
“Hurricane conditions are expected tonight and early Wednesday along a portion of the west coast of Florida,” the Miami-based forecaster said.
A hurricane watch was in effect from Egmont Key, in the Tampa Bay region, to the Steinhatchee River some 180 miles north along the Gulf Coast.
The sky was gray but conditions dry on Tuesday in Venice Beach, about 70 miles south of Tampa. Michelle and Amador Diaz were there from Albuquerque to celebrate their 32nd wedding anniversary, and were enjoying a walk along the beach.
“We’re not scared of the storm,” Amador Diaz said. “I’d rather have this than the sun out.”
After landfall, the storm is forecast to move north-northeastward across the southeast of the United States through Thursday, dropping 2 to 4 inches of rain across the Florida peninsula.
Tornadoes were possible on Tuesday across Florida and on Wednesday in north Florida, southeast Georgia and the low country of South Carolina, the NHC said.
Strong winds and rain slammed Key West on Tuesday morning and caused the streets to flood as the storm passed by offshore.
The storm threatens to impede the search and rescue effort at the site of the condominium building collapse in Surfside, near Miami, where crews have sifted through rubble for 12 days in hopes of finding survivors. As of Tuesday morning, 32 people were confirmed dead and 113 were still unaccounted for, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said.
WATER REPLENISHED IN CUBA
Farther south, Cubans breathed a sigh of relief as Elsa appeared to have caused little damage, while actually helping replenish reservoirs.
The capital city of Havana awoke to overcast skies after a rainy night but no major flooding or damage on Tuesday. Cubans returned to the streets after authorities lifted a tropical storm warning, although heavy rains were set to continue in parts of the country.
“It’s good that Elsa did not cause major damage because we have a really complicated situation here with the coronavirus and now the hurricanes,” said Susana Perez, 68, a retired teacher, queuing up to buy oil amid widespread shortages of goods in Cuba.
Last week Elsa, which briefly strengthened into the first hurricane of the season, caused at least three deaths and damage to infrastructure and agriculture in Caribbean island nations east of Cuba.
Preliminary damage estimates were at more than $12 million in St Lucia and $5.3 million in Jamaica, according to government officials.
Cuban provincial governors said in a videoconference late on Monday that Elsa had proven net positive in the center and east of the island, helping replenish water reservoirs and causing little damage to infrastructure, according to state-run media.
The impact on the west of the country remained to be evaluated, the governors said.
Tropical Storm Elsa picks up strength as it aims for Florida Gulf Coast