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Elsa sweeps across west Cuba, heads to Florida Gulf coast

HAVANA — Tropical Storm Elsa swept over western Cuba with strong rain and winds Monday, and forecasters said it would move on to the Florida Keys on Tuesday and Florida’s central Gulf coast by Wednesday.

The storm was moving over mainly rural areas to the east of Havana after making landfall near Cienega de Zapata, a natural park with few inhabitants.

By late afternoon, Elsa’s maximum sustained winds had slowed to 50 mph (85 kph). Its core was about 45 miles (75 kilometers) southeast of Havana and moving to the northwest at 14 mph (22 kph).

“The wind is blowing hard and there is a lot of rain. Some water is getting under the door of my house. In the yard the level is high, but it did not get into the house,” Lázaro Ramón Sosa, a craftsman and photographer who lives in the Zapata Swamp, told The Associated Press by telephone.

Sosa said he saw some avocado trees fall nearby.

Though Havana was expected to miss the brunt of the storm, many people in the capital were staying in place.

“For now, I staying at home. We have to wait for the night and see exactly what happens,” Aida Herrera, who lives next to the Malecon boulevard facing the sea, told AP.

Elsa had spent Sunday and much of Monday sweeping parallel to Cuba’s southern coast before heading on to land, sparing most of the island from significant effects.

As a precaution, Cuban officials had evacuated 180,000 people against the possibility of heavy flooding from a storm that already battered several Caribbean islands, killing at least three people.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said the storm was expected to move back over the sea by Monday night and then head for Florida. Tropical storm warnings were posted for the Florida Keys from Craig Key westward to the Dry Tortugas and for the west coast of Florida from Flamingo northward to the Ochlockonee River.

Elsa was a Category 1 hurricane until Saturday morning, causing widespread damage on several eastern Caribbean islands Friday as the first hurricane of the Atlantic season. The storm caused the deaths of one person on St. Lucia and of a 15-year-old boy and a 75-year-old woman in separate events in the Dominican Republic.

Elsa is the earliest fifth-named storm on record and also broke the record as the tropic’s fastest-moving hurricane, clocking in at 31 mph Saturday morning, said Brian McNoldy, a hurricane researcher at the University of Miami.

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