Businesses, schools close as storm Elsa nears Caribbean

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Officials in St. Vincent and the Grenadines closed schools, businesses and an international airport on Friday as the eastern Caribbean island battered by recent volcanic eruptions prepared for Tropical Storm Elsa, which threatened to unleash flooding and landslides.

Heavy rains and winds were already lashing Barbados, which imposed similar closures late Thursday.

Elsa was located about 70 miles east-southeast of St. Vincent and was moving west-northwest at 28 mph (44 kph). It had maximum sustained winds of 60 mph (95 kph) and was expected to strengthen further, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

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 Soufrière volcano is located.

“They will move anything within its path,” said St. Vincent Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves. “Do not wait until it’s too late to go to a shelter.”

He said 94 shelters are open, adding 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.

A tropical storm warning was in effect for Barbados, Martinique, Dominica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, 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 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 strengthen in upcoming days and move into the eastern Caribbean Sea late Friday and Friday night, and 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.