(Reuters) -Tropical Storm Elsa was drenching the Florida Keys on Tuesday on its northward trudge toward the west coast of the state, where it was expected to make landfall at close to hurricane strength on Wednesday morning after dumping heavy rain over Cuba.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) said in a Tuesday advisory the center of Elsa was about 65 miles west-northwest of Key West and moving in the north-northwest direction at around 10 mph (17 kph), with maximum sustained winds of around 60 mph (95 kph).
Strong winds and rain slammed Key West on Tuesday morning and caused the streets to flood, although the center of the storm remained offshore.
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.
“Slow strengthening is forecast through tonight, and Elsa could be near hurricane strength before it makes landfall in Florida,” the Miami-based weather forecaster said.
After a Wednesday morning landfall along Florida’s Gulf Coast, the storm is forecast to move north-northeastward across the southeast of the United States through Thursday, dropping 2-4 inches of rain across the Florida peninsula.
The arrival of tropical storm-force winds and rain was threatening to impede the search and rescue effort at the site of a condominium building collapse in Surfside, Florida, 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.
Tornadoes were possible on Tuesday across Florida and possible on Wednesday in north Florida, southeast Georgia and the low country of South Carolina, the NHC said.
WATER REPLENISHED IN CUBA
Cubans breathed a sigh of relief on Tuesday as Elsa appeared to have caused little damage in its rampage across the country while actually helping replenish water reservoirs.
The storm exited the island just east of the capital Havana, which awoke to overcast skies after a rainy night but no major flooding or damage. Cubans returned to the streets after authorities lifted their tropical storm warning, although heavy rains were set to continue in parts of the country.
“The best thing is that Elsa did not cause big damages because we have a really complicated situation here with the virus and now the hurricanes,” said Susana Perez, 68, a retired teacher, queuing up to buy oil amid widespread shortages of goods in the country.
Last week Elsa, which briefly strengthened into the first hurricane of the season, caused at least three deaths and damages 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.
“Around 400 million cubic meters of water could accumulate in the country’s reserves due to Elsa, which would bring national reserves to 66% of total capacity after runoff from the mountains,” Cubadebate wrote.
The impact on the west of the country remained to be evaluated, the governors said.
Tropical Storm Elsa skirts Key West, aims for Florida Gulf Coast