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Latin America Report

Elsa Not As Destructive To Caribbean As Feared — But Raises Specter Of Earlier Hurricanes

HurricaneElsaStVincent.jpeg
Orvil Samuel
/
AP
A telephone pole crashes onto a house on the island of St. Vincent in the eastern Caribbean during Hurricane Elsa (now Tropical Storm Elsa) on Friday.

As Tropical Storm Elsa churns out of the Caribbean toward Florida, it leaves the realization that earlier and later storm activity may be the trend.

Tropical Storm Elsa was briefly a Category 1 hurricane that left wind and flooding damage in Barbados and other islands in the eastern Caribbean over the weekend.

It then swiped the southern coasts of the Dominican Republic and Haiti before weakening to a tropical storm and moving across Cuba Monday.

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WLRN Americas editor Tim Padgett has been following Elsa and he spoke with WLRN’s Andrea Perdomo about the effects of the storm in the Caribbean — and the challenges the Caribbean faces now, as these storms form so much earlier and later in the Atlantic hurricane season.

Here are excerpts of their conversation, edited for clarity:

PERDOMO: Tim, can you recap for us what Elsa did in the Caribbean? There was a lot of concern that Haiti in particular would experience destructive flooding. Was that the case?

PADGETT: It does not appear as though Haiti suffered catastrophic flooding. The country's southwest tip, unfortunately, did get battered by heavy rains and wind. And officials say that damaged a big part of Haiti's agriculture, which is not good news when the U.N. says almost half the population isn't getting enough food this year.

The only deaths reported on Hispaniola — the island Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic — were in the Dominican Republic, where two people were killed by collapsing walls. The only other fatality over the weekend was in St. Lucia, much further to the east in the Caribbean, where Elsa first formed.

READ MORE: What Eta and Iota Tell Us About the Hurricane Future in Latin America and the Caribbean

Elsa seemed to slow down after brushing Hispaniola. And then it spent most of Monday crossing Cuba. Was Havana, that country's capital, badly affected?

As of late Monday afternoon, Elsa did look to be headed almost directly for Havana, which is why authorities there said they'd evacuated thousands of people by bus to safer areas. They said they evacuated about 180,000 to shelters in Cuba's interior, where the storm did bring 65 mph winds and dump heavy, flooding rain on Monday, along with a lot of power outages. But the good news is the storm weakened considerably as it crossed the island.

Hurricane season in reality has been a two month, mid-August to mid-October thing. Suddenly there's fear it's becoming a four- or five-month reality. Can Caribbean countries handle that?

Even though Elsa didn't turn out to be as destructive in the Caribbean as it seems like it could have been, you say there is something about the storm that really worries Caribbean governments.

Right, the fact that it appeared so early in the Atlantic hurricane season. Officially, the season starts on June 1, right? But the reality is most hurricanes don't threaten the Caribbean until mid-August. Elsa became a named storm on July 1. It's already the fifth named storm of 2021. That's the earliest ever that five named storms have been recorded in the Atlantic.

But the real fear is this: the earliest that five named storms ever appeared before this year was last year. So this might not be an aberration. Experts say it's starting to feel like a climate-change trend.

EXCEPTION OR NEW NORM?

Tim, I also saw reports that Elsa was the first hurricane to hit the island country of Barbados in more than 60 years?

Yes, and that's something else turning experts’ heads. Look at how far south Barbados sits in the Caribbean. Atlantic hurricanes usually don't form at that southerly a latitude. But again, is this an exception or a new norm? Because we also saw two powerful hurricanes, Eta and Iota, form this far south last year. It just raises the concern that climate change and global warming are making a larger swath of the Caribbean more vulnerable to these storms.

HurricaneElsaTrack.jpeg
Elsa's track began at a more southerly latitude than is usual for Atlantic storm formation.

And it's not just the earlier start of the Atlantic hurricane activity that worries the Caribbean basin. It's also ending later, too. How are governments preparing for that?

I was just talking about Hurricane Iota, which hit Central America with Category 4 strength in late November last year. Remember, officially, the Atlantic hurricane season ends Nov. 30. No recorded storm that powerful had ever formed that late in the year. So while in years past our hurricane season was in reality a two month, mid-August to mid-October thing, there's suddenly the concern that it's becoming a four- or five-month reality.

And as you point out, the big question is, can countries with limited disaster mitigation and response resources like these Caribbean islands handle that longer hurricane season reality? I spoke with the Intergovernmental Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency in Barbados and they told me their director, Elizabeth Riley, will be in teleconference meetings with Caribbean governments most of this week discussing just that.