Elsa strengthens into season's 1st hurricane in Caribbean, closing schools, airports

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. Forecasts suggested it could be headed toward Florida by Tuesday.

Category 1 storm is 1st hurricane to hit Barbados in more than 60 years

Debris from a house is seen next to a road after strong winds from tropical storm Elsa passed St. Michael, Barbados, on Friday. (Nigel Browne/Reuters)

Elsa strengthened into the first hurricane of the Atlantic season on Friday as it blew off roofs, snapped trees and destroyed crops in the eastern Caribbean, where officials closed schools, businesses and airports.

It appeared headed eventually in the general direction of Florida.

The Category 1 storm is the first hurricane to hit Barbados in more than 60 years, unleashing heavy rains and winds on the island, then on St. Vincent and the Grenadines, which are struggling to recover from recent massive volcanic eruptions.

Elsa was centred about 765 kilometres east-southeast of Isla Beata in the Dominican Republic and was moving west-northwest at 48 kilometres per hour. It had maximum sustained winds of 140 kilometres per hour, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

An electrical pole knocked down by Elsa leans on the edge of a residential balcony, in Cedars, St. Vincent, on Friday. (Orvil Samuel/The Associated Press)

"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."

The long-term forecast showed it heading toward Florida as a tropical storm by Tuesday morning, but some models would carry it into the Gulf or up the Atlantic Coast.

No reports of deaths

Authorities in Barbados said they received calls about families trapped in their homes, collapsed houses and power and water outages, but no reports of serious injuries or deaths. Wilfred Abrahams, minister of home affairs, information and public affairs, urged people to open their homes to those in need.

"We are getting a lot of reports of damage," he said.

This satellite image shows Elsa moving through the Caribbean and over Barbados on Friday at 8 a.m. ET. The Category 1 storm unleashed heavy rains and winds. (NOAA/NESDIS/STAR GOES/The Associated Press)

Meanwhile, officials in St. Lucia said that 90 per cent of power customers were without electricity at the height of the storm. Landslides, flooding and damaged homes also were reported.

A hurricane warning was in effect for Jamaica and from the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince to Punta Palenque in the Dominican Republic. A hurricane watch was issued for the Cuban provinces of Camaguey, Granma, Guantanamo, Holguin, Las Tunas and Santiago de Cuba.

The forecast track showed the fast-moving storm rolling toward Hispaniola, the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic, as a hurricane before reaching Cuba and weakening back to tropical-storm force.

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 (mudflows or debris flows that originate on the slopes of a volcano), especially in the northern part of the island where La Soufrière volcano is located.

Gonsalves said 94 shelters are open, noting that it's 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.

Earliest 5th-named storm on record

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.

He also noted that it's the farthest east that a hurricane has formed this early in the tropical Atlantic since 1933. The 1991-2020 average date for the first Atlantic hurricane formation is mid-August.

The storm was forecast to bring 10 to 20 centimetres of rain with maximum totals of 38 centimetres on Friday across the Windward and southern Leeward Islands. The rain could unleash isolated flash flooding and mudslides.