TAMPA — A growing tropical depression in the Atlantic strengthened into Tropical Storm Elsa on Thursday morning and early forecast models place South Florida squarely in its path by next week.
By 11 a.m. on Thursday, the National Hurricane Center placed Elsa about 680 miles east-southeast of the Windward Islands of the Lesser Antilles. That’s 100 miles closer to the islands than the storm was at 8 a.m., when the NHC published the previous update.
According to the National Hurricane Center, Tropical Storm Elsa is carrying maximum sustained winds around 45 mph with higher gusts, and the storm is only expected to grow stronger over the next 48 hours as it races toward land.
The tropical storm-force winds extend roughly 90 miles from the storm’s center, the hurricane center said.
Tropical Storm Elsa gained some momentum Thursday morning as it continued moving west across the Atlantic, increasing in speed from 25 mph at 8 a.m. to 28 mph by 11 a.m.
An even faster motion to the west-northwest is expected over the next 24 to 36 hours, the hurricane center said.
A five-day forecast model for the storm shows Elsa strengthening as it passes close to or over parts of the Windward Islands and southern Leeward Islands on Friday on its way into the eastern Caribbean Sea. On Saturday, the storm is expected to gain speed as it crosses the Caribbean, aiming toward the southern coast of Hispaniola.
By early Sunday, Elsa is forecast to move near the coast of eastern Cuba. Early predictions then show Elsa moving into South Florida by Tuesday morning with wind speeds up to 65 mph.
Forecasters at the hurricane center stressed that there’s still a “high degree of uncertainty” as to what what impacts Florida will see from Tropical Storm Elsa, however much of the southern peninsula was included in the forecast cone Thursday morning. That model then shows Elsa moving across the state and into the Gulf of Mexico.
“There is a risk of storm surge, wind, and rainfall impacts in the Florida Keys and portions of the southern Florida Peninsula early next week. However, the forecast uncertainty remains greater than usual due to Elsa’s potential interaction with the Greater Antilles this weekend,” said forecaster Jack Beven, senior hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center.
A strong, subtropical ridge of atmospheric pressure is expected to push Elsa to the west-northwest at a rapid pace over the next 48 hours, Beven said. After that, though, the storm will likely run into a weakness in that ridge due to another trough of pressure pushing in the opposite direction over the eastern United States.
“The westward extend of that ridge will play an important role as it will likely determine where the storm turns to the north and could impact sensible weather across west central and southwest Florida in the longer range,” said Eric Oglesby, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Ruskin.
Today, showers and thunderstorms are expected to develop over the Tampa Bay region, likely beginning in the early afternoon and moving slowly inland throughout the day. Oglesby said the topical pressure ridges stalled over the state will form the right conditions for those scattered thunderstorms to continue throughout the week.
Spectrum Bay News 9 meteorologist Juli Marquez said the high temperature in most of Tampa Bay will stay around 89 degrees with a 70 percent chance of rain. That rain chance will drop to around 40 percent over the holiday weekend.
“We’re going to have some pockets of heavy rain this evening, then tonight and tomorrow morning our winds are going to be more south and southwesterly which will make a couple of showers possible early tomorrow morning,” Marquez said. “That will be a change from the mainly afternoon and evening storms we’ve had this week.”
The National Hurricane Center has issued a Tropical Storm Warning for Barbados, Martinique, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, while a Tropical Storm Watch is in effect for Guadeloupe and Grenada. Those areas are all expected to begin seeing tropical storm-force conditions within the next 36 hours, the hurricane center said.
The alerts warned against isolated flash flooding and mudslides across much of the Caribbean. Elsa is forecast to dump between 3 to 6 inches of rain on Barbados and the Windward and Leeward islands with maximum totals of 10 inches.
Puerto Rico is expected to see 1 to 3 inches of rainfall, with some areas receiving as much as 5 inches of rain Friday and into Saturday.
Elsa is the fifth named storm of the season and the earliest on record for the Atlantic, according to Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach. That record was previously July 6, when Eduardo became the fifth named storm of the 2020 hurricane season.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.