CONE, COMPUTER MODELS, UPDATES: Elsa strengthens into hurricane; Florida still in path

Florida remains in projected path of Hurricane Elsa

ORLANDO, Fla.Update: Hurricane Elsa continues breakneck speed through Caribbean, Florida remains in path. Click here for the latest update.

Elsa is now a hurricane.

Elsa strengthened into the first hurricane of the Atlantic season on Friday as it battered the eastern Caribbean, where officials closed schools, businesses and airports, and it appeared headed for Florida or the U.S. Gulf Coast.

[EXPLAINER: It’s Atlantic hurricane season: Do you understand what ‘the cone’ really is? | Here’s what we know about Elsa]

Heavy rains and winds lashed Barbados as the Category 1 storm headed for islands including St. Vincent and the Grenadines, which are struggling to recover from recent massive volcanic eruptions.

Elsa was located about 730 miles east-southeast of Kingston, Jamaica, and was moving west-northwest at 29 mph as of 11 p.m. It had maximum sustained winds of 80 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

“That level of sustained wind can blow down a lot of buildings and cause a lot of damage,” said St. Vincent Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves. “I am pleading with you. Let us not take this hurricane lightly. This is not the time to play the fool.”

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A hurricane warning was in effect for the southern coast of the Dominican Republic from Punta Palenque to the border with Haiti and the southern portion of Haiti from Port Au Prince to the southern border with the Dominican Republic.

The long-term track showed the storm rolling toward the Dominican Republic and Haiti as a hurricane before weakening back to tropical storm force and potentially heading in the direction of Florida by early Tuesday.

Authorities opened dozens of shelters in St. Vincent and urged people to evacuate if they lived near a valley, given the threat of flash flooding, mudslides and lahars, especially in the northern part of the island where La Soufriere volcano is located.

“Do not wait until it’s too late to go to a shelter,” Gonsalves said.

A hurricane watch has been issued for eastern Cuba.

He said 94 shelters are open, a smaller number than in previous years because some 2,000 people remain in other shelters following massive volcanic eruptions that began in early April.

A tropical storm warning was in effect for Martinique, the southern coast of Dominican Republic from Cabo Engano to the border with Haiti and the entire coast of Haiti. A tropical storm watch was in effect for Grenada, Saba, Sint Eustatius, Dominica and Jamaica, while a hurricane watch was in effect for Haiti’s southern region from the capital, Port-au-Prince, to the southern border with the Dominican Republic.

Elsa is the earliest fifth-named storm on record, beating out last year’s Eduardo, which formed on July 6, according to Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach.

Elsa was expected to pass near the southern coast of Hispaniola, which is shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic, on Saturday. The storm was then expected to move near Jamaica and portions of eastern Cuba on Sunday.

The storm was forecast to produce rainfall totals of 3 to 6 inches (7 to 15 centimeters) with maximum totals of 10 inches (25 centimeters) inches on Friday across the Windward and southern Leeward Islands, including Barbados. The rain could unleash isolated flash flooding and mudslides.

Although most of Florida is in Elsa’s projected path, Elsa’s direction early next week remains uncertain. Most computer models show Elsa in the Gulf of Mexico, near South Florida, early Tuesday, with a landfall Wednesday in the Big Bend. A few models show Elsa riding up the east coast of Florida. More will be known in the coming days.

[RELATED: List of storm names for 2021 hurricane season]

The next named storm after Elsa will be called Fred.

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About the Authors:

Daniel started with WKMG-TV in 2000 and became the digital content manager in 2009. When he's not working on, Daniel likes to head to the beach or find a sporting event nearby.